Tackling the stigma of mental health issues – Ruth Sutherland

‘Samaritans believes toxic messages which eat away at men’s wellbeing can be reversed,’

Ruth Sutherland, Chief Executive, Samaritans

The latest UK suicide figures show that on average just under 6,000 people take their own lives every year. Three-quarters of them are men. Suicide is the leading cause of death for men under 50. You can quote the statistics about suicide, but it is hard to convey the devastation with just numbers. A suicide is like a rock thrown into the water with the ripples spreading outwards, covering family, friends, soaking work colleagues, acquaintances, the wider community.

Why so many men? Again, the research, including Samaritans’ Men and Suicide report, shows how complex the issue is. In the report, men talk about relationships breaking down, separation from children, job loss, addiction, lack of close friendships, loneliness and being unable to open up. We also know that deprivation is a major factor in male suicide, increasing the odds of taking your life by 10 times, compared to the suicide risk of more affluent men.

Something called the ‘gold standard’ of masculinity puts pressure on men. It’s a persuasive little voice that whispers, ‘You’ve failed’ – unless you have gone out and secured that job, that house, that car, that woman, those children and that sunny family life.

‘You’re divorced? Don’t see your kids much now and don’t live with them? You lost your job? You can’t pay your debts, your rent, your mortgage, your bills? Your life is over, man!’

It whispers about anything that isn’t part of conventional James Bond-style masculinity: ‘You’re gay, you’re trans, you’re bi – what sort of life do you think you’re going to have? Don’t tell anyone, whatever you do.’ Feelings of failure and shame make it harder to open up because that will make things worse, won’t it?

Samaritans believes these toxic messages which eat away at men’s wellbeing can be reversed and in many places work is being done on this already. As well as Samaritans, Men in Sheds, the universities of Glasgow and Bristol, and the university of Manchester (with their research into why middle-aged men are particularly vulnerable) are all looking at why and how to help.

Many of us suffer from suicidal thoughts – 1 in 5 in fact, according to a recent NHS digital survey. Research shows that thoughts of suicide can be interrupted – for instance by talking to an organisation like Samaritans which helps people develop strategies to manage these thoughts when they intrude.

Of course, what we all want is for men to get support before they reach a crisis. Designing services to appeal to men, research into what works best – is it online, is it reaching people through sports, work, music, pubs, cabbies, betting shops? – are necessary steps to support suicide prevention.

We can make a difference and save lives. And silence the inner voice that says ‘failure’ forever.