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A Word from CALM Director Jane Powell: Gender & Suicide

“It is fantastic to see Samaritans fully acknowledging that gender roles and stereotypes play such a key part in suicide.  We’ve been banging on about this since 1998.  The research reflects what we’ve saying for over a decade: that there’s a cohort of men – men who were in their twenties and thirties in the late 1990s – amongst whom suicide rates are really high, and that gender plays a huge part in suicide.

The research points out, amongst other things, that it’s the expectation about how men are supposed be, the role they play, and the difficulty in living up to these stereotypes which play such a key part in suicide.  And this begs further analysis, and some sharp questions.  Is it because this generation of men are “emotionally illiterate”, as proposed in this research?  The focus upon middle aged men here has left the issue of other age groups out on a limb.  And most pertinently, how do we enable men to respond? What messages do we give them?  How do we respond to what’s in here?

I believe this generation of men are highly socially literate.  They hear the message, that to be a man is to be in control, loud and clear from the media and from everyone else around them.   They hear the message that to be weak is to be feminine.  Rather than suggesting that these men are ‘emotionally illiterate’, I suggest we tackle head-on what’s keeping men’s mouths shut when they are going through a tough time.  Why do they feel this area is out of bounds to talk about?  We need to challenge the crass stereotypes – that women are emotional, frail, good at nurturing, good at social interaction, intuitive; whilst men are good at bashing things, carrying heavy objects, technology and drinking. We need to create some equally powerful social messages challenging the strong-and-silent-type myth.

The research suggests that our ‘progressive, individualistic sons’ are doing OK.  Really?   I know the suicide rate is lower in this age group, but last year in England and Wales there were 930 suicides of men aged 15-34 versus 275 suicides of women in the same age bracket.  In the 55-74 age bracket there were 760 male deaths and 289 female suicides. Is everyone OK with the 3:1 ratio of male to female suicides? Should we accept this as normal? Should we only give this issue attention when there’s a rise in rates?  SUICIDE IS THE LEADING KILLER OF MEN AGED UNDER 35.  I’m not OK with that. And I would like to know if the rest of the suicide prevention industry are?  Because this should affect how we respond and act to prevent suicide.

It’s all too easy to suggest implicitly that this is, in essence, an issue of biology.  That’s one step away from blaming men; blaming them for their emotional illiteracy; for their “dependency on a female partner for emotional support”; for their “personality traits”.  The message is effectively “Men can’t even get it right when it comes to being men”.  And this message is so deeply ingrained that when the media reports the issue of male suicide – as has happened again today – the blame is further reinforced.

The report suggests we should design services differently and look to policy makers and practitioners to implement and instigate changes.   The report, whilst acknowledging that gender roles are important,  goes on to suggest that we adapt by recognising the gender differences and amending our services.  Quite rightly, change does need to happen across all services, but we need to tackle the problems before men become suicidal.

At CALM we don’t believe that suicide is either inevitable or hot-wired into men’s genes.  The suicide rate goes up and down in men, as it has done in women.  As there is nothing out there which indicates that this is a biological inevitability, we believe it must be cultural, in which case any attempt to tackle the roots of suicide must be cultural if it is to succeed.

If the fault lies in the culture – not the men – then it is our expectations, stereotypes, and the messages that are embedded within our daily lives that need to be tackled if we are to have any long term impact upon suicide.   CALM looks, feels and acts different than other suicide prevention charities because we seek to change culture and not simply provide the bandage or support.  We have to think and act upstream to reduce suicide not just help “men in crisis”.

The other aspect that sets us apart is that our biggest supporters in this venture are men, young, middle aged and older.  We don’t seek to talk at them, rather they are at the heart of what we do. Because guess what, it’s the culture, the messages, the stereotypes which they themselves face daily which cause the problems and men are the first in line to want to see that change.   Those seeking to reduce suicide, we believe, would be well advised to start with that thought.

Unless and until we challenge gender stereotypes then suicide is not going to change – last year the number of young male suicide rose which is pretty worrying.  Training GPs, putting more money into training, encouraging a ‘community approach’ (I do hope this doesn’t just mean job centres) won’t change stereotypes.  Shouting at the audience really loudly won’t help either; we need to prevent men believing they have to be a self-made success, showing no weaknesses in the first place.  We could train a million listeners and open a million centres, but if men still believe they will be less of a man if they talk or visit then it will change nothing.   Let’s take another issue, breast cancer.  Think of all the campaigns to address it, to prevent it, very pink aren’t they?  Given the majority, but not all, of lives lost to breast cancer are female it makes sense; the Breast Cancer Campaign is so successful because it’s an acceptable brand/image which women can get behind and feel empowered by.

We have always believed gender is central to the issue of suicide.  The fact that 75% of all suicides are male and that we lose 10 men every day to suicide in England & Wales is intimately linked with what we expect men to be.  Until that’s challenged nothing will change.  Do join us in that venture.”


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