Suicide is now the biggest killer of men between 20 and 49, eclipsing road accidents, cancer and coronary heart disease. According to the statistics men – particularly middle aged men (35-54) – are four times likely to take their own lives compared to women.
This is a surprising truth; most men are becoming physically tougher but are increasingly becoming emotionally fragile. In fact, we are becoming so strong physically that no one can easily kill us but ourselves.
Relationship breakdown – the major reasons behind suicide – hits men the hardest. Research studies show that divorced and separated men are more likely to kill themselves compared to those who are married.
With approximately 50% of marriages end up in divorce more and more men are likely to encounter mental and emotional meltdown.
Suicide is a consequence of acute mental illness. It’s the extreme end of a mental ill-health spectrum. Other (mild) symptoms of mental illness include unhappiness, stress, distress and depression. In other words the same things that cause mild symptoms (such as unhappiness) can indeed make one suicidal.
Although mental illness affects all people men are affected more than women. Actually, studies show that women are more likely to suffer from depression, but most of them don’t end up taking their own lives.
Now then, how can we prevent mental illness? Why is it that men (particularly middle aged men like me) are more susceptible to emotional meltdown especially after a relationship collapse, and what lessons can men learn from women?
This article is meant to explore the answers to these questions.
REASONS FOR MENTAL HEALTH DISORDER
According to the research commissioned by Samaritans* , a UK charity that helps suicidal men, mental illness is caused by ill-thoughts. These pathogenic thoughts can interact with other factors such as personal traits, social norms, deprivation, and triggering life tragedies such as relationship breakdown or job loss, to mental illness risk. These ill-thoughts generate toxic emotions that strain our body health and push us to inflict even more damage on ourselves.
The pathogenic thoughts include;
1. Feeling defeated, socially isolated, and worthlessness
2. Tendency to ‘catastrophize’ events and consider any adversity to be unnecessary and all pervading.
3. Believing that every crisis is due to personal fault, a belief that leads to self criticism.
4. Feeling trapped – conviction that the crisis will never end, and that it will destroy everything. This strips one of the ability to see a brighter future and re-engage in new goals.
The breeding ground of all ill-thoughts is insecurity – the perception that one is inadequate or inferior unless one conforms to certain (often unrealistic) expectations.
The severity of mental illness depends mainly with one’s level of insecurity, crisis severity and one’s coping ability.
The most effective way of coping with emotional trauma is by replacing ill-thoughts with the healthy ones and by draining the toxic emotions out of your system by expressing your emotions. This can be best achieved with help from a suited person such as a friend, or counsellor.
WHY MENTAL ILL-HEALTH HIT MEN HARDER?
Masculinity:The way men are built and brought up to behave and the roles, attributes and behaviours that society expects of them – contributes to extreme mental illness in men.
Men compare themselves against a masculine ‘gold standard’ which prizes power and dominance, aggressiveness, courage, independency, efficiency, rationality, competitive- ness, success, activity, control invincibility and invulnerability; not perceiving or admitting anxiety, problems and burdens; and withstanding danger, difficulties and threats. When men believe they are not meeting this standard, pathogenic thoughts start to creep in.
Their very own “macho” persona make men ill-equipped to cope with emotional trauma.
Most men are emotionally illiterate. Compared to women, men tend to have less awareness and ability to cope with their own emotions or the emotions of others. This lack of emotional knowledge is part of the construction of masculinity, rooted in beliefs developed from childhood, that to disclose – or even experience – emotional distress constitutes weakness. Not having been socialised in emotional skills, some men may then not have opportunities to develop such skills in mid-life.
Emotional illiteracy hinders men from identifying their own emotional distress; such feelings build for some time before men realise they are vulnerable; they may then feel inhibited about admitting these problems to others or seeking help; and, as a result, experience a build-up of distress which can culminate in crisis, including suicidal feelings and behaviour.
Women are actually more likely to suffer from depression, but more likely to seek help when they encounter trouble. Unlike men, women are much more open to talking about emotions than men of all ages and social classes. Women are also better at healthy grieving and at maintaining close same-sex relationships across their lives, but men’s peer relationships drop away after the age of 30.
The uncomfortable truth is that stereotypical forms of masculinity – stiff upper lips, “laddishness” – are killing men. “Asking for help is seen as an affront to masculinity,” says the writer Laurie Penny, who has extensively researched mental health issues and written about her own experiences. “This is deeply, deeply troubling, because it means when you’re taking that first step when you’re suffering a mental health difficulty, reaching out for help is made doubly hard. The rules of masculinity prevent you from asking for help or talking about feelings.”
According to Penny, depression is often accompanied by a sense of shame, of not deserving help, “and when messed-up gender roles are thrown into the mix, it’s going to become even more troubling”. She has no doubt that gender policing “ruins lives across the board”.
Mind is one of Britain’s main mental health charities; according to its research, just 23% of men would see a GP if they felt low for more than two weeks, compared with 33% of women. “One of the more common ways men deal with it is self-medicating with alcohol and drugs,” says the Mind spokeswoman Beth Murphy.
Personal relationships have a powerful effect on health and wellbeing, including mental wellbeing. Research shows that webs of informal emotional support continue to play a major role in the lives of the majority of the population. Most people have other people around them with whom they would talk if feeling worried, stressed or down. However, the relative narrowness of emotional connections among men in mid-life leaves some men vulnerable to emotional distress, mental health problems and suicide, when faced with negative life events.
Women are more prominent than men in men’s (and women’s) accounts of others ‘being there’ for them – as mothers, partners, daughters, siblings and friends. Women, across age groups and classes, maintain a key role in men’s emotional lives. Who people turn to is not constant across the life course, and this is particularly affected by processes of partnering and de-partnering. Men in mid-life are overwhelmingly dependent on their partner for emotional support – to a far greater extent than women of the same age.
Women tend to maintain close same-sex friendships across their lives, while same-sex friendships drop away for men over 30. However, men may choose not to share with wives or partners because they wish to protect and not worry them, and because they believe women want ‘strong masculinities’.
When relationships break down, men face the loss of their primary emotional relationship, without other social connections to fall back on; and, if they are unemployed, they will also be without work- based companionship. Further, they may perceive themselves to be without support; and perceived support can be as significant as actual support in its negative impact on (mental) health and wellbeing.
Friendships With Men
Male friendships tend to be based on companionship through doing activities together. The ‘healthy’ ways men cope are using music or exercise to manage stress or worry, rather than ‘talking’. Men are much less likely than women to have a positive view of counselling or therapy.
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 risky choices – making rash financial decisions, heavy drinking, taking drugs, and suicidal behaviour – as a way of regaining control.
While frequently fearful that male friends will find out about their distress, men do describe emotionally significant friendships, although they do not necessarily talk to these friends about emotional issues on a regular basis. Relationships between men tend to be concerned more with ‘doing’ and ‘being alongside’ than the self-revelation and nurturance of women’s friendships.
Men Don’t Engage in Deep Talk
Most empirical studies show that women continue to be much more positively orientated to ‘emotions talk’ than men, across all ages and classes. There is some evidence that middle class men are better at ‘talking the talk’ – talking about their feelings as a way of gaining approval in relationships. However, there is little difference across social groups of men in their attitudes to emotions talk or the frequency with which they actually talk to those close to them.
Men currently in mid-life have lived through a changing emotions culture. They are aware of the ‘good to talk’ cultural imperative but are uneasy to open up. We do operate in a culture where men, by and large, talk about their feelings less. They’re self-conscious about talking about weakness, there’s this male sense of ‘shrug and get on with stuff’.”
WHY MARRIAGE BREAKDOWN HAS GREATER IMPACT ON MEN
Relationship breakdown is more likely to lead men, rather than women, to suicide. There is considerable research evidence of an elevated suicide risk among divorced and separated persons compared to those who are married.
In addition, divorced males have been shown to have higher levels of suicidal ideation than divorced females, and separated men are twice as likely as separated women to have made plans about ending their lives.
Here are some of the reasons why.
1. Men derive more emotional benefit from marriage than women, and marriage entails more emotional distress for wives than for husbands. Wives report more psychiatric disorders than husbands, whereas men tend to have higher levels of distress and psychiatric disorders in the unmarried population. The ‘new man’ who shares responsibilities with women is more of an idea(l) than a reality, with most men still expecting to be taken care of in intimate relationships.
2. Men’s social roles and expectations are more inflexible than women’s, with more pressure on men to conform and thus more negative psychological or social consequences for men who fail to attain conventional masculinity. There is a large and unbridgeable gap between the culturally authorised idea of ‘a proper man’ and the reality of everyday survival for men in crisis.
Honour is part of masculinity, and requires public affirmation and validation before other men. Loss of masculine status through relationship breakdown results in a sense of shame. For some men, a life of shame and dishonour is seen to be a life not worth living.
Honour is also part of masculinity, and to be ‘disrespected’ in front of others by the actions of their partner (infidelity or abandonment) may lead to shame and/or impulsive reactions, perhaps to punish ex-partners. Men are more likely to be separated from their children and this plays a role in some men’s suicides.
In addition, within western societies there is a strong cultural emphasis on achieving a strong and happy marriage, and those who divorce may experience a deep sense of disorientation, shame, guilt and emotional hurt. The sense of shame may be particularly important; separated males and females who experience suicide ideation have higher levels of internalised shame than separated individuals who are not suicidal.
3. Men are less able than women to meet the changing expectations for increased intimacy in marital relationships. The interdependence of the ‘pure love’ relationship is incompatible with the self- sufficiency that men expect of themselves.
Men may develop unrealistic, idealised expectations of relationships, while not having the emotional skills to negotiate the complex reality of relationships or cope with emotional distress, which may result in an intense, self-destructive reaction to relationship breakdown.
4. Despite the fact that actual practices of fathering may not have significantly changed, there is an increased cultural emphasis on men as involved fathers. When marital relationships fail, men are less likely to be awarded custody of, or have access to, their children. 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.
5. Men tend to experience greater loneliness than women, even where they are not socially isolated. Their social networks are less supportive and they have fewer meaningful friendships.
Women Suffer Heart-break Too
Divorce deeply affects both men and women. While men are more likely to suffer acute mental ill-health following a divorce, women are more prone to physical health issues such as heart attack. A new study show that divorced women have a 24 per cent higher chance of having a heart attack than those who are happily married, and raises to 77 per cent following two divorces.
Even remarriage does not mitigate the damage, the researchers found, with women with new husbands 33 per cent more likely to suffer a heart attack.
“Divorce is a major stressor, and we have long known that people who are divorced suffer more health consequences,” said lead author Dr. Matthew Dupre, associate professor of medicine at Duke University in North Carolina, US.
The study also found that men who remarried also fared better than women. These men experienced the same risk of heart attack as men who had been married continuously to one partner.
WHY MID AGED MEN ARE HARDEST HIT TODAY
1. Mid-life has traditionally been viewed as the prime of life. However, there is evidence of mental ill- health and a dip in subjective wellbeing among people in their mid-years, compared to young and older people. Problems with relationships and employment during mid-life are experienced intensely, because by this life-stage, people have typically invested a great deal in work and relationships and the possibilities for making changes in these areas are limited.
2. Men currently in their mid-years are the ‘buffer’ generation – caught between the traditional silent, strong, austere masculinity of their fathers and the more progressive, open and individualistic generation of their sons. They do not know which of these ways of life and masculine cultures to follow.
In addition, since the 1970s, several social changes have impacted on personal lives, including rising female employment, increased partnering and de-partnering and solo-living. As a result, men in mid-life are increasingly likely to be living on their own, with little or no experience of coping emotionally or seeking help on their own, and few supportive relationships to fall back on.
Mid- life as a time when the consequences of long-term decisions about work and relationships come to light. This is also the time when the possibilities for making changes in these domains are limited, and likely to come at a high cost, resulting in risks to men where their investments in relationships or work break down. The current middle-aged group is the largest ever, and, given this size, men in this group find themselves in competition to meet the life-stage demands of work and relationships – a situation that is exacerbated by the current economic crisis.
WHAT SUPPORT DO MEN SEEK
What counts as emotional support, is ‘being there’, ‘being alongside’ and understanding/empathy, based on personal experience, or knowledge of the person, and being reachable if needed. Men seek out those in their network who are perceived to be non-judgemental and who, crucially, know them and the background to the stories they are telling.
They seek, in other words, unconditional acceptance, summed up by the phrase “no questions asked” – and this includes permission not to talk about problems or losses. What also matters is that this talk goes no further; that the listener will neither ask questions nor repeat what they have heard to others.
Each man need to learn to be emotionally savvy and mentally secure by exercising these thoughts;
1. There is no such thing as “perfect manhood” that every male must attain. Each of us is a unique individual with unique life purpose and path. Stop living up to other people’s expectations, stop craving for their approval. Don’t compare yourself; instead, strive to be your personal best. Simply, be yourself and allow others to be themselves.
2. Adversity is a necessary part of life that can befall on any of us any time and, often times, without fault of our own. So, falling on hard times does not make you less a man.
3. As humans we need each other at all times, not least when we fall in hard-times. Finding the courage to admit you are in trouble, expressing your emotions and asking for help is a sign of strength – not weakness.
4. Don’t lose hope. Hard times never last but tough men do. More over each adversity come with equal measure of opportunity. Once this ordeal is over things will change for the better for you and for your loved ones.
*Men, Suicide and Society – Why disadvantaged men in mid-life die by suicide. (Unless stated other wise this article is based almost entirely on this study.)