Men: Suffering secretly and silently

Trapped in cycles of despair, men are committing 75 per cent of all suicides in the UK.

Stephen Fry mental health campaign
Britain's Stephen Fry has campaigned for better access to mental health services [GALLO/GETTY]

Are times changing in the patriarchal society we live in? Has feminism smothered and surpassed the brotherhood, leaving them floundering and forgotten about on the sidelines? A true feminist would hope not, as (contrary to sloppy stereotypes) feminism is about achieving true equality, not the oppression of men. 

A while ago, I wrote about how austerity in Britain is hurting women the most. Since then, things haven’t got better, they’ve got worse. The British government is inflicting yet more pain on women in Britain by disregarding and debasing issues such as abortion, rape and domestic violence. Ruthlessly slashing the already frail budget from women’s services, culling child benefit, housing benefit, child tax credits and cutting 40 per cent – £350m ($550m) – from Legal Aid’s already meagre budget – these are just a few stomach-churning indications of how women in Britain are being forced into a further state of vulnerability by those in power. 

But men in Britain are vulnerable too, like 38-year-old Chris from London. We don’t really hear about neglected and vulnerable men, because as a direct consequence of phallogocentrism, there is little acknowledgement that a man could be struggling, a fact recognised least of all by men themselves.  

Chris is someone who fits neatly into that oh-so-tired cliché of “having it all”. A father to two lovely children, married to his “soul mate” for 15 years and living in a picture-perfect home. But despite the glossy façade, life is not what it seems; life is, in his words, “not worth getting up for”. Chris was made redundant from his management job in advertising two years ago and hasn’t worked since: 

“I have tried and had many interviews, but nothing has come off. I had a decent salary and reasonable pay off, but now that has gone we’re surviving on credit cards. My wife gave up her job before we knew I would be losing mine, as our children are very young, and I would never want to deprive her of staying at home with them. She doesn’t know, well I think she doesn’t know, just how bad things are at the moment – as I’m in charge of the finances. I have literally nothing to get up for. It’s hard to explain, but a strong factor in how a man is defined by himself and society is through his career. I’m not even getting any interviews for shelf stacking or temporary positions, as apparently my “skill set doesn’t match”. It’s awful, just absolutely mortifying.”

Chris went on to explain how not having a purpose or anything to work towards affects every aspect of his life. He told me how long term unemployment has had a profoundly detrimental effect on his physical and mental state:

“I’ve lost touch with friends. The thought of sitting in the pub with them all and fielding questions of how the job search is going fills me with utter dread. I’m the only unemployed one, the broke one, with nothing to talk about while they go on about how great their lives are. I also feel like I am neglecting my wife’s needs, I struggle to psyche myself up to be intimate with her, I feel so worthless, so unmanly.”

I wanted to know whether Chris had or wanted any specialist support or help for how he is feeling. We talk about counselling, whether his GP would be someone he would feel comfortable confiding in, and what type of services are available for men who are fragile and vulnerable. Chris says: 

“Men don’t even go to the doctors when they’re ill, let alone to discuss their feelings. I don’t want another man judging me or a woman pitying me and prescribing anti-depressants. The thing is, no-one really cares; the reality is you’re on your own as a man. I don’t mean to sound sexist and that it’s not tough for women, but there seems to be more support and help for them, easier – you know, it’s tougher being a man in need.” 

Suffering the same, but in different ways 

It is indeed tough – tough for men and women in Britain today who are equally trapped in different destructive cycles of desolation and darkness. Is Chris’ comment really fair that “it’s tougher being a man in need”? The stark reality is that we are living in a society where the inequality gap between women and men shows little sign of closing. As the Fawcett Society highlights, women typically use state services and benefits more than men through pregnancy and maternity needs, women (on average) earn less than men, are poorer (particularly later on in life) and will often spend their final years alone. In addition, it is women who are more likely to be the primary carers for children, sick and elderly people.

Furthermore, considering that women are far more likely to be lone parents and the victims of domestic and sexual violence, the “support and help” they need and receive is far from being in abundance, but are critical lifelines that are often subject to threat. 

“Suicide is the biggest killer of men aged 15-34, with 75 per cent of all suicides in the UK carried out by males. Men are four times more likely to take their own life than be killed by someone else.

Embarking on a debate about gender wars is not constructive, but it is important to convey what men really feel and said when being interviewed for this article. A substantial majority of those I spoke with described how “feminism” has, in their words, “spiralled out of control”, leaving men as the “marginalised minority”. Some described themselves as the victims of misandry, stressing that men were not depicted fairly and accurately, citing examples of their portrayed roles in everything from last year’s London riots to bringing the country to its knees from the city’s financial centre.  

Phil is a 22-year-old who has just graduated with a 2:1 in English from a Russell Group university. But instead of feeling proud of his achievements, he’s worrying about the burden of responsibility that society is bestowing upon him:

“I’m about £20,000 [$31,000] in debt and that’s just my student loans. No graduates I know are getting hired at the moment, so I’m working in a call centre, which is pretty depressing. There’s definitely strong societal pressure for a man to be sorted and conform to a certain set of ideals. I feel a bit of a loser, to be honest and am worried about the future. I’ve got a rubbish job, no girlfriend, no car, and am living with and off my parents. Yeah, for men, there’s a lot of unspoken pressure heaped onto us. I don’t feel successful or [like] a man that is going places.”

‘Real men’ do cry

Male mental health can be a taboo area of darkness. Clichés such as “real men don’t cry” and “take it like a man” are sparkling examples of the murkiness of bigotry. These too-frequently bandied taunts are crucifying thousands of men in the UK who are suffering – the vast majority, secretly and silently. One in ten men will require treatment for depression at some point in life, while the National Institute for Clinical Excellence believes that depression in men is under-diagnosed because they describe different symptoms to their GP.

Suicide is the biggest killer of men aged 15-34, with 75 per cent of all suicides in the UK carried out by males. Men are four times more likely to take their own life than be killed by someone else. The latest published figures from the Office of National Statistics show in the UK there were 4,231 suicides among men in 2010 (17.0 per 100,000 population) and 1,377 suicides among women (5.3 per 100,000). 

Someone who has been catapulted into the despair of the consequences of suicide is 23-year-old graduate Oli Mosse. Oli’s older brother, Jake, tragically lost his battle with depression in 2010, when he was just 23. Reflecting about his brother, Oli, who speaks with an understated maturity, described how he was someone that appeared to be flawless: 

“Jake was a perfectionist, an incredibly high achiever, graduating with first-class honours in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from the University of Manchester. He wanted to be the best and he was – tall, dark, athletic, handsome, lots of friends, popular with the girls. No-one was aware that he was suffering from a mental illness and would even consider doing anything like taking his own life. He was prescribed anti-depressants, but was carrying on as normal, he was going on nights out, attending classes, he wasn’t sitting in a dark room, locking himself away from life.”

Oli explained how he and his family feel utterly let down by the system, and the lack of awareness in society regarding men and mental health:

“There is no serious training for GPs to deal with mental health. Many friends who are studying medicine say it is very much neglected in their courses. Why isn’t it learnt or talked about in the same way, say, as cancer is? It is very much a taboo subject in every aspect of life, from the street to the pub to the doctor’s surgery. People aren’t aware that it’s the biggest killer in young males – every day three young men commit suicide. But think about it, the idea of a totally sane mind doesn’t make sense does it? It doesn’t make sense because it doesn’t exist.” 

Oli founded HEADCulture after Jake’s death, to fight depression and suicide in young men. He ran the Manchester-based charity while at university, and said their approach worked because they were different, “cool and relaxed”. 

“We used to organise parties in clubs and bars, just like any other night out at university, but used them as a platform to educate people on the risks of depression and suicide. Friends and I would be walking around wearing tee-shirts with the words ‘Suicide’ and ‘Depression’ across the back to try and get the message across that the words are socially acceptable for young men to talk about. Guys would email after nights out and engage with us, they’d tell us they had a wicked night, and thought they were alone in how they were feeling, but now realise they’re not.”

The politics of mental health 

“While suicide is the biggest killer of young men, the public are far more concerned with gun and knife crime… The difficulty is we are trying to tackle an issue that is not seen as an issue.

– Jane Powell, Campaign Against Living Miserably

The scale of mental illness in Britain is horrific, with the NHS doing “little about it”. That’s the finding of a new study published by the London School of Economics. The report: How Mental Illness Loses Out In The NHS, complied by psychologists, doctors, economists and NHS managers, describes mental illness as more disabling than most chronic physical diseases. The research also found only a quarter of those who need treatment are actually receiving it. 

Suicide is also rising faster among older men, the age group most at risk are those aged 45 to 54, with 53 per cent of deaths in this age bracket being from killing oneself. This has led suicide prevention charity, Campaign Against Living Miserably (Calm), who carried out the research, to expand its remit to include older men. Chief Executive Jane Powell explained how gender needs to be at the heart of the government’s suicide-prevention strategy:

“We are in difficult economic times and across the board there is cost cutting – everyone is being badly hit. Our concern is that men aren’t a group that are seen as a priority by society, in fact there’s zero public awareness of suicide, so of course there’s never enough being done. We aren’t funded by the government so our resources are limited, while suicide is the biggest killer of young men, the public are far more concerned with gun and knife crime – although men are four times more likely to take their own life than be killed by someone else. The difficulty is we are trying to tackle an issue that is not seen as an issue.” 

There are feelings of despair, disillusionment and disenchantment in Britain today with this coalition government recklessly running and ruining the show. Their savage welfare reform is striking the UK’s most vulnerable even harder and has struck fear in mental health experts, who have warned of the fatal consequences of benefit changes.

The website Calum’s List was formed “as evidence the appalling carnage that the past and current fatally flawed welfare reform is causing for real families and the friends of the bereaved”. The site lists the number of deaths in the UK where welfare reform has alleged to have had some culpability.  

The department of health has postponed the publication of its suicide prevention strategy until later this year. A spokesperson said: “In 2010-11, £11.91 billion was spent on mental health disorders, compared to the £11.26 billion in 2009/10,” adding, “mental health is high on the government’s agenda.”

Note: Some names and details have been changed to protect identities.

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised, please contact the Samaritans on (0044) 08457 90 90 90 or visit their website.

Siobhan Courtney is a British freelance broadcast journalist and writer. She is a former BBC World News presenter and BBC News journalist who has reported and written for BBC Newsnight.