Are We Overlooking Male Suicide?

This article includes references to male suicide rates across the United Kingdom. If you are affected by the issues discussed in this article, help is available from the Leeds University Union’s Help and Support team, the University and organisations like Leeds Mind.

With mental health and wellbeing an ever-increasing concern in today’s world, what often gets overlooked is the effect it is having on men. Not only is male suicide the single biggest cause of deaths for men under 50 in the UK, but its prevalence begs the question of its underlying causes.

The Office for National Statistics finds that 75% of deaths by suicide in 2018 were men, and in fact this has been the case as far back as the 1990s, providing truly harrowing food for thought. Surely this is conclusive proof that this is an issue which only continues to intensify. 

In the past year, male suicide has been brought glaringly to light under the context of reality television, a prime example being Love Island star Mike Thalassitis. Thalassitis was found hanged in his home in March 2019; he had reportedly been struggling with the death of his grandmother coupled with financial issues. Friends had spoken to Mike in the lead up to his death and say there was no indication of his intentions. Once the scene was examined, documents and letters were discovered revealing that he had clearly set out for his life to end. Unfortunately, it is a sad truth that it is impossible to conclusively foresee events of this nature; even friends and family can remain unaware. 

Love Island star Mike Thalassitis, who had been dubbed “Muggy Mike” by the media following his appearance on the reality TV show (Image: Ian West/PA)

We can only contemplate what drives some men to the extreme of taking their own life. Many mental health charities have reported based on findings a multitude of overarching risk factors, ranging from work stress and financial pressures to living alone/social isolation, use of drugs or alcohol to cope with emotions and relationship breakdowns. There are other factors that often go un-noticed and fail to be considered, such as history of physical or sexual abuse, imprisonment and bullying at school college or work. Someone we know could well be dealing with serious issues such as these alongside the stressors of day to day life at any time, all of which can have detrimental impacts.

It is found that there is also often a weighty expectation for men to be less emotional and maintain a stance of stoicism even in times of hardship or emotional turmoil. Historically, men have been far less likely to speak up and discuss the topic of their own mental health along with worries or concerns that they may be having. Even when men come forward, a neglect towards men’s mental health by professionals is doing them a major injustice. Currently GPs take over three weeks to arrange verbal treatment methods according to the British Medical Association. 

Patients who are referred for cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or dialectical behavioural therapy (DBT) as a result of diagnosed mental health illness can expect waiting list times exceeding several weeks. In the meantime, problems can be exacerbated as individual’s are left to the mercy of their conditions. Devastatingly, there have been many instances of death by suicide in the waiting time between initially being referred for help and being seen by a professional. The current measures in practice by the NHS are simply not good enough. In fact, BMA research has found 3700 patients waited more than six months for talking therapies last year and 1500 longer than a year. 

Statistically, far fewer male students have sought help from universities when experiencing issues. Of counselling and well-being services offered by 100 universities across the UK, only 31% was accessed by men, a Freedom of Information request by the BBC recently unearthed. On top of that, official figures illustrate that well over twice as many male as female students end their own life. Why then is there a lack of public awareness regarding male suicide, especially within the sphere of higher education institutions, when it is such a prevalent issue?

One university to take this matter seriously is Birkbeck University in London. The university has been monumental in making effective male student support a viable reality. Following carefully conducted research by the university students expressed that they felt unable to take the first step in asking for help, despite struggling with their mental health. 

Primarily, many believed their problems were not serious enough to warrant support. In response to this, the university’s counsellor Jo Myddleton sought for “images of masculinity to be challenged”. Students proposed “They wanted male role models – men who could talk about mental health and be visible in the university.” The outreach team began to introduce a new range of tools to help give men the confidence to come forward – working closely with students at each stage. A targeted poster campaign was launched, with images of men challenging traditional mindsets. An approach that could perhaps benefit from being integrated at other universities. 

Furthering this notion, Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) is a leading charity movement against suicide in the UK. Offering numerous services tailored to men in need of help, it seeks to establish opportunities for other forms of therapy (art, music, sport), as well as an open space without fear of judgement. There exist many campaigns and organisations in place for suicide prevention, but few that offer a direct male orientated approach as CALM does. It aims to set the precedent for an honest and alternate approach to dealing with male stereotypes pertaining to mental health. 

It is evident institutional and procedural change is required of governing bodies including universities and the NHS in order to really begin to understand and assist men in need. Though we can never truly estimate or understand an individual’s own emotions, stressors or mental space, hopefully as a society we can begin to alleviate some of the barriers to stigma. We must initiate a change toward providing adequate assistance that is so deservedly necessary for all men.