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Middle-aged men in the UK and Ireland experience the highest suicide rates and are particularly vulnerable to economic uncertainty and recessions.
In our volunteers’ conversations with callers, three key themes were raised: worries about financial and economic future, coping alone, and strains on relationships.
Worries about financial and economic future
Over the past year, male callers were slightly more likely than female callers to raise concerns about finances or unemployment (7.4% vs 6.4%), though it is clearly a factor affecting people of all ages and genders during the pandemic.
Volunteers told us financial concerns were frequently described in the context of male callers’ fears and uncertainty about the future – losing their standard of living, job loss and redundancy, or losing their business if they were self-employed.
For men in midlife, volunteers reported that feelings of shame at no longer being employed were often linked to guilt at not being able to support their family. Feeling a lack of control and powerlessness was especially common, with many male callers feeling a need to be the breadwinner and provide for their family, but unable to do this in the unstable external environment.
[Many] seem to take the loss of a job very hard and feel that they are letting their partners and children down by not being able to be the breadwinner in the family.
Another common feature of these contacts is feelings of failure and low self-worth. This is particularly common where male callers had lost their job or felt a job loss was imminent, and was reported more frequently by volunteers in the summer and autumn of 2020, when the furlough scheme was expected to be wound down.
Research from before the pandemic shows that men can be less likely to open up when feeling low, particularly men in midlife. Through the year, volunteers have consistently told us that the most common theme among male callers was related to coping alone – and men not wanting to burden others with their problems. Many male callers have felt that they have to ‘put on a brave face’ rather than openly sharing their concerns and feelings with loved ones, because they fear being a burden to those close to them.
Volunteers felt that, for many male callers, a perception that ‘others are worse off’ inhibits their help-seeking and can lead to feelings of failure when they don’t feel able to cope alone.
Some men are suffering but don't want to worry their family/ friends as they may be going through their own problems, which may put pressure on the relationship.
The restrictions over the past year appear to have further limited opportunities for some men to open up. For instance, the closure of facilities such as gyms, pubs, sporting venues and cafes has heightened feelings of loneliness and isolation among male callers, which has become a more common concern during the past year (31% of contacts from men compared to 27% the year before). These spaces can facilitate open conversations and appear to be a way of coping with or exploring difficult feelings. This echoes findings from previous Samaritans research, Out of sight, Out of mind, which found that these spaces can enable human connection and provide an alternative to traditional support.
Some callers reported to volunteers that their social circle had become smaller as a result of the closures and were worried these relationships might not return. Others have spoken of using drugs and alcohol to cope with loneliness – concerns about drugs and alcohol were almost twice as common among male callers than female (10% of male emotional support contacts vs 6% among female).
Strain on relationships
Research shows that relationship breakdown can affect men in midlife more than women. This is for a range of reasons, including some men not having the same type of social network as many women, which can mean a relationship breakdown is felt more intensely. In addition, men are often more likely to relocate following a relationship breakdown, and this often means living away from children.
Over the year since restrictions began, relationship problems were a concern in one in five emotional support contacts from men (21%), similar to previous years. Our volunteers told us that the concerns raised appear to be worsened by coronavirus, for instance because of working in close quarters with family members and increased family tensions. One concern that has particularly affected some men, mostly in midlife, was loss of contact with children for separated fathers. Volunteers describe fathers who were unable to see their children for long periods due to the lockdown, shielding or a perception of having restricted access to the children.
Men who have children but who are separated from the other parent are distressed about not having seen their children for many months. They feel their children are being 'kept' from them under the cover of 'lockdown conditions', with no one to appeal to.
To find out more about how middle-aged men have been affected by the Coronavirus pandemic, and what we think should be done to support them, follow the link below to read our policy brief. If you are reporting on this issue, please refer to our media guidelines.
We know there's still a stigma around men seeking help when they're struggling, so we launched Real People, Real Stories to remind men that when life is tough, we're here to listen.