Time to “Man Up”? The Hard Truth of Male Suicide

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I once tried to talk to a friend of mine about suicide. I was out of work and despairing. She responded by telling me the situation was “f*cked up” and demanded I not discuss it with her. Such a gentle attitude towards what was a very difficult episode in my life left me feeling somewhat shocked, to say the least. Fortunately I soldiered on.

But many don’t. In what is a problem intimately related to economics, a study from the University of Zurich holds that approximately one in five suicides across the world are linked to unemployment. That’s around forty five thousand or so deaths per year due to joblessness across a range of nations from Japan to the United States.

“Current data from Europe, the USA, and Asia suggest an association between the 2008 economic crisis, rising unemployment rates, and increased rates of death by suicide. Whereas evidence suggests that all-cause mortality declines during recession, suicide does not”, claimed the study by Dr Carlos Nordt and colleagues.  “Men and those of working age seem to be particularly affected”, they added.

In the UK the Office for National Statistics recorded over six thousand self-inflicted deaths in 2013 alone, with the rate of male suicides the highest since 2001. Figures analysed by the suicide prevention charity, the Samaritans, found British men to be three times more likely to kill themselves than their female counterparts, with those in economically deprived areas ten times more likely to resort to self-harm than those in affluence.

The notion that suicidal tendencies may hit men hardest will perhaps prove unpopular in some quarters. Yet this is not a new phenomenon. Way back in the early 1980s a study appeared in the journal, Sociological Focus, exploring the interlinked perils of unemployment, suicide and gender. The study, which fixated on the United States, singled out unemployment as the “most important determinant of suicide” with males believed to be particularly vulnerable to self-destructive behavior. “Unemployed males often feel like failures in providing for their families,” claimed the authors, Steven Stack and Ain Haas. “This often increases marital strife” with “factors such as social support, financial resources, and gender roles” all found to be integral to understanding the link between unemployment and self-harm.

Yet what exactly is causing men in particular to respond to such hardships by taking their own lives? Traditional gender stereotypes regarding masculinity may be a factor, as affected males struggle to come to terms with both their own sense of worth and often condemnation by those who regard ongoing unemployment as a personal failure.

“Having a job and being able to provide for your family is central to ‘being a man’, particularly for working class men,” claimed a 2012 study by the Samaritans. “Masculinity is associated with control, but when men are depressed or in crisis, they can feel out of control. This can propel some men towards suicidal behaviour.”

A contemptuous attitude towards failing to ‘be a man’ is hardly exclusive to men themselves. In a study of divorce rates and unemployment it was discovered that women were considerably more likely to divorce out-of-work husbands than vice versa. The research, led by Liana Sayer of Ohio State University, also noted that unemployed men may terminate a marriage of their own accord, in part due to stereotypical notions of what an ideal relationship might look like.

“These effects probably emanate from the greater change in women’s than men’s roles,” claimed the authors. ‘Women’s employment has increased and is accepted, men’s nonemployment is unacceptable to many, and there is a cultural ambivalence and lack of institutional support for men taking on ‘feminized’ roles such as household work”.

Divorced men are also at greater suicide risk due to societal and legal factors involving child custody. “When marital relationships fail, men are less likely to be awarded custody of, or have access to, their children,” argued the Samaritan’s study. “Separation from children appears to be a significant factor in some men’s suicides. In addition, men are more likely to be displaced from the family home, to unstable accommodation or homelessness, itself a risk for suicide.”

It would be a mistake, however, to think that suicide patterns are consistent across the world. Whilst societies accustomed to relative affluence find males particularly at risk of self-harm, in the global south women face myriad difficulties in terms of extreme economic deprivation and exclusion. A 2005 paper, “Achieving the Millennium Development Goals: Does Mental Health Play a Role?” held that ‘suicide is now a leading cause of death in young women in the world’s two most populous countries, India and China’, highlighting that inequality in suicide is by no means uniform.

Regardless of gender, employed or not, it’s imperative to relate to one another as human beings first and foremost. Feeling emotion, whether the dizzying heights of happiness or the deepest despair, is an integral part of that experience, something which can only be considered ‘f*cked up’ by those fundamentally disconnected from their own humanity.  

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