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In Wales we need no reminding that suicide is a tragedy, impacting on families, friends, communities and the economy.
For many years statistics have shown that young men (under 30) are the group at highest risk of taking their own lives across the UK. Over recent years however, suicides among men in mid life have risen to become higher than those of younger men.
On average around 3000 middle-aged men (men in their 30’s, 40’s and 50’s) take their own lives each year across the UK and Republic of Ireland, including around 150 men in Wales.
In a new report, ‘Men and Suicide – It’s a Social Issue’, Samaritans commissioned six academics from around the UK and Ireland to examine this rise in depth. In particular we are asking why men from disadvantaged backgrounds in their 30s, 40s and 50s are at higher risk of suicide. It is deeply concerning that men living in the most deprived areas of the UK are ten times more likely to die by suicide than men from high socio-economic backgrounds living in the most affluent areas.
Predictably and understandably, policy responses to suicide across most of the UK have been developed through the lens of mental health policy. The role of mental health problems in suicide is well-established and must not be ignored but we also need to look at the economic and social inequalities that contribute to people wanting to take their own lives.
Samaritans commissioned this research to explore the reasons for suicide beyond mental health issues in this group of men and we are now calling for suicide to be addressed firmly as a health and social inequality in Wales.
The research highlights a number of findings which appear to be enhancing rates of suicide amongst this group of men:
- men compare themselves against a ‘gold standard’ which prizes power, control and invincibility. When they believe they aren’t meeting this standard they feel a sense of shame, which can lead them to have suicidal thoughts;
- men in mid-life are now part of the ‘buffer’ generation, not sure whether to be like their older, more traditional, strong, silent, austere fathers or like their younger, more progressive, individualistic sons;
- the changing nature of the labour market over the last 60 years has particularly affected working class men. With the decline of traditional male industries, they have lost not only their jobs but also a source of masculine pride and identity;
- men in mid-life remain overwhelming dependent on a female partner for emotional support. But today men are less likely to have one life-long partner and more likely to live alone, without the social or emotional skills to fall back on.
The Welsh Government has taken important steps to improve awareness of the issues and reduce rates of suicide in Wales through its ‘National Strategy to Reduce Suicide and Self Harm ‘Talk to me-Siarad a fi’. However, it is vital that they take account of the issues raised in the report and ensure that local implementation is prioritised (for example around promotion of help seeking among men, monitoring local rates of suicide and requiring local authorities to do more to reduce access to locations which could be used by people to take their own lives).
Arising from the research Samaritans has made six recommendations:
Take on the challenge of tackling the gender and socio-economic inequalities in suicide risk.
- Suicide prevention policy and practice must take account of men’s beliefs, concerns and context – in particular their views of what it is to ‘be a man’.
- Recognise that for men in mid-life, loneliness is a very significant cause of their high risk of suicide, and help men to strengthen their social relationships.
- There must be explicit links between alcohol reduction and suicide prevention strategies; both must address the relationships between alcohol consumption, masculinity, deprivation and suicide.
- Support GPs to recognise signs of distress in men, and make sure that those from disadvantaged backgrounds have access to a range of support, not just medication alone.
- Provide improved leadership and accountability at local level as part of the Welsh Government’s National Strategy ‘Talk to me-Siarad a fi’ so there is a commitment to on-going action to address these challenges across Wales where need is greatest.
All sectors in Wales have an important part to play in promoting policies which are likely to reduce suicides. In particular a renewed awareness of the issues at local level will make an important difference both now and over the long term.
Simon Hatch, Executive Director for Wales, Samaritans