What it is to be a man: Suicide in middle-age

Each year approximately 6000 people die by suicide across the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland – many of whom are men in their mid-years. Our research looks at the reason why men in their 30s, 40s and 50s are at the highest risk of taking their lives.

Middle-aged manDerek, 40, from Dublin thought about taking his own life and explains his story:

"I changed jobs and became a taxi driver, but it didn’t work out. I didn’t enjoy it and I wasn’t earning enough money. I got into gambling. I was just throwing the money away for the sake of it, but I spent a lot.

"Everything got on top of me; I don’t know whether it was stress-related. I gave up work because I couldn’t take it anymore – I was going to snap. I brought a lot of pressure home to my family and things were building up. There was nothing much left in my relationship with my wife.

"I thought if I killed myself, it would all go away and my family would be ok. It would mean that there would be no more worrying, no more arguments at home, no more harming my kid with the screaming.

Derek’s story is sadly, not unusual. 2,522 men aged between 35 and 64 died by suicide in the UK in 2010, and in the same year, 220 died by suicide in the Republic of Ireland. The highest risk of suicide is in men from low socio-economic groups in their 30s, 40s and 50s.

Why are disadvantaged men in mid-life at excessive risk of suicide?

We recently commissioned research to find out. The research formed the basis of our Network Rail campaign.

Looking at social, economic, gender and psychological factors, our team of five social scientists – plus Stephen Platt, our Trustee – went beyond the existing body of suicide research, to understand the difficulties facing men in this group.

We wanted to answer two questions:

  • Why are men in their mid-years of low socio-economic position more vulnerable to suicide?
  • What should be done to reduce suicide in this group of men?

The researchers discovered that while issues like unemployment and falling on hard times do contribute to men contemplating suicide – just as important are underlying beliefs about ‘being a man’, being tough and not showing emotions. A common thread was that men didn’t feel comfortable talking about their problems or that talking about how they felt would help.

Dr Amy Chandler, from the University of Edinburgh, says ‘toxic’ aspects of masculinity amongst working class men suggest that it might be easier for more affluent men to reinvent their masculinity.

She says: "The masculinity that working class men may feel they need to live up to is rigid, narrow and confining. Disadvantaged men may lack the resources to change this in the face of economic hardship, lack of skills, family breakdown and deeply entrenched views of what it is to be a man. The challenge is how to communicate in a way that makes sense for these men without alienating them."

Men now in mid-life are part of the so-called ‘buffer’ generation, caught between their older, more traditional, strong, silent, austere fathers and their younger, more progressive, individualistic sons. They are struggling to cope with major social changes that have occurred over the last 50 years.

As part of the research, men from low socio-economic backgrounds who had at some point in their lives attempted, or thought about suicide, were interviewed. Men like Derek from Dublin and James*, 58, from Glasgow.

James says: “My partner was seeing people behind my back and when we split I had to fight a long, hard, custody battle for my daughter. Those were the blackest days of my life, and that was the time I thought about suicide. I thought it would be better not to be here; it would be a lot better for everyone else. I didn’t want to burden my family with how I was feeling. Then, to make matters worse, my mum died. Once I got access to my daughter, it took me about six or seven years to get back to being able to feel myself again.”
*Not his real name

Loneliness and building support networks

Our researchers discovered that another big issue was men’s loneliness in mid-life. Often beyond the age of 30, men have fewer supportive peer relationships than women, and are more dependent on a female partner for emotional support. Today, they are even more likely to live alone, and less likely to have one life-long female partner. Add this to the lack of social or emotional skills to fall back on and men can feel that there is no one there for them, and no one they matter to.  

Researcher Dr Julie Brownlie believes that instead of focusing on the ‘dysfunctional’ ways men cope, such as avoidance or alcohol, work should be done to encourage men to develop their own support networks.

She says: “Confidential services which allow men to raise emotional difficulties spontaneously, rather than in a pre-planned way, are important, and emerging mobile phone and internet technologies have a part to play in this.”

So what’s the solution?

We’ve put together six recommendations for national governments, health, welfare and social services, and want people to debate – and develop with us – the best way to reduce suicide in this group. The first step is to recognise that the high suicide rate in disadvantaged men in their mid-years is a social issue, as well as a health inequality. Secondly, all organisations working in suicide prevention must take account of men’s beliefs, concerns and the context – in particular their views of what it is to ‘be a man’.

More information on the research or campaign ‘We're in your Corner’.

Fast facts

  • Men from low socio-economic backgrounds are up to 10x more likely to end their lives by suicide than men from the most affluent groups
  • Psychiatric illness, particularly depression, underlies many suicides, but only a minority of those who are mentally ill take their own life
  • Marriage breakdown is more likely to lead men, rather than women, to suicide. Men rely more on their partners for emotional support and suffer this loss more acutely.

Source: Men and Suicide: why it’s a social issue – Samaritans Research, September 2012.