Page published on 15th December 2022
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On 17 November 2022 IP Inclusive and Jonathan’s Voice co-hosted a webinar to mark International Men’s Day in the UK. The theme of the webinar was “Why do men take their lives? – What we know and what we don’t”. Counsellor/psychotherapist Mark Fudge was joined by Susie Bennett to talk about her research into male suicide.
In the UK, suicide is the biggest killer of men under 50. Despite this representing a major public health crisis, research into male suicide is surprisingly lacking. Jonathan’s Voice is part-funding Susie’s research at the University of Glasgow Suicidal Behaviour Research Laboratory under the direction of Professor Rory O’Connor.
In this webinar, Susie gave an overview of her research and why she believes it is so important, what the outcomes are so far and how these might be translated into practical support. In particular, she is keen:
- To give men better tools to help them to understand themselves;
- To help everyone to engage more compassionately with the male experience; and
- To support a cultural shift whereby it is OK for men to express their emotions.
THE LINK BETWEEN NORMS OF MASCULINITY AND SUICIDE RISK
In one aspect of her research, Susie conducted a systematic review analysing 20 years’ worth of qualitative studies (interviews and focus groups) with men who have attempted suicide and people bereaved by male suicide. In nearly every study, she found evidence of norms of masculinity (eg male stereotypes) being associated with potential suicide risk for men, impacting both the amount of psychological pain that men are exposed to and also their tools to regulate that pain.
The norms fell into three broad categories:
- Norms that encourage men to suppress their emotions, impacting both internal understanding of feelings and external expression of them.
- Norms that impact men’s relationship (thoughts and feelings) towards themselves, including pressures to meet norms of male success and the feelings of failure that come if these are not achieved. Here, a dangerous gulf can emerge between the external presentation of a happy/coping individual and the reality of his internal experience.
- Norms that impact men’s relationships with others, ie the suppression of our inherent human need for connection, intimacy and belonging.
These norms can interact, resulting in cycles that reinforce the associated behaviours. For example, if a man feels like a failure, norms to suppress emotions mean he might not disclose this distress to others, thereby creating potential distance in his relationships with others.
AN UNDERSTANDING OF THE MALE EXPERIENCE
Mark and Susie spent some time exploring the concept of “toxic masculinity”, that is how men can experience cultural pressures to behave in certain ways, which can be harmful to their mental health, particularly in relation to the norms above. Such behaviours might include being physically strong/aggressive; not showing emotions, talking about feelings or accepting help; and a drive towards power/status.
Toxic masculinity can glorify unhealthy habits and some men can feel extreme pressure to behave in ways which are unhealthy or even harmful, such as pushing themselves to their physical limits by overworking, working out when injured or not getting enough sleep, or engaging in risky behaviours such as heavy drinking or smoking. Toxic masculinity can also discourage some men from seeking medical advice or mental health treatment. There are also many hostile messages that men receive from society, eg being more likely to be seen as harmful than harmed, or privileged rather than disadvantaged. These messages that young men are receiving about their identities can be extremely troubling and painful.
Susie noted that sometimes women don’t realise the strength of the messages that men are receiving, nor the contradictions, which can leave men trying to walk an impossible tightrope. For example, put in the context of the pressure men feel under to be seen to be successful, functioning and competent, where and how can men find a safe space to be vulnerable, talk about their feelings or seek help? A space where their reality of existence is not denied?
Susie hopes that her research will help to bring about change in helping men to better understand themselves; and in helping others towards a greater understanding of and compassion for the male experience. She is particularly passionate in supporting a cultural shift whereby it is OK for men to express their emotions and talk about how they are feeling. It is crucial to give men cultural permission to access their emotions, which is not only a fundamental part of the human (not female) experience, but also an essential part of how we regulate ourselves.
MEN’S HELP-SEEKING BEHAVIOURS
Another of Susie’s studies is around men’s help-seeking behaviours, looking at some of the barriers to men seeking professional help, such as cost and experiencing help as not helpful. As a result she has been exploring why these negative experiences are happening and what sort of help men actually want.
For Susie, the context is so vital. She described what suicidal pain at the point of crisis might look like for someone – eg low self-esteem, emotional dysregulation, a lack of trust in people. Now put this person in a help-seeking environment: first, they need to believe they’re worthy of help and second, they have to trust someone with their most intimate emotions. Then factor in a possible lack of psychological capability – maybe they have never previously talked about their emotions, or never had the experience of sharing in this way before; maybe they have a fear of being misunderstood or a lack of trust. How do you provide help for someone in these circumstances? How do you encourage them to even access help if they are feeling too unwell to organise support?
These are big questions with no straightforward solutions.
COMMUNITY AND PERSONAL INTERVENTIONS
Both Mark and Susie acknowledged that the topic of suicide can naturally induce panic or fear, which is not helpful to the person suffering. However, simply being there for someone and listening can often be enough help in that moment. In this sense, we all have an incredible power to nourish and support one another through how we interact, and through the time and space and attention we give to each other. This is why looking at the kinds of support systems and training that are available to friends and family is also so important to Susie.
Susie and Mark both gave examples of how community or workplace interventions can be so valuable, such as initiatives where men are able to talk in a safe space to other men – often these are outdoors and activity-focused, eg dog walking (such as Dudes and Dogs). Such peer support can help to normalise struggles and help men to realise that they are not alone.
For Susie, the whole point of her research is to realise value from it. There are many layers and levels at which her findings could be used to make a difference to men who are struggling. For example, at a population level, she would like to see the messages given by the media about men changed, or emotional regulation being taught in schools. At a community or workplace level, she’d like to see different kinds of peer support groups created to provide safe spaces to talk and to help normalise men’s experiences. In terms of training and support, she’d like to see GPs and mental health professionals being trained about male norms and to build compassion for the male experience, as well as support or training for significant others.
TOP TIPS AND STRATEGIES
Here are some things we can all do to help.
- Be aware of and sensitive to the male experience: male stereotypes, norms and cultural expectations.
- Support men in breaking free of those masculinity rules that do more harm than good (eg a need to be seen as strong, or to suppress emotion).
- Allow the men in your life to talk about their emotions and be vulnerable.
- Encourage men to protect their own health.
Susie provides regular updates on the progress of her research at https://jonathansvoice.org.uk/research-we-fund.
LawCare have also recently published a focus group report on Men’s mental health in the legal profession.
PLEASE GET IN TOUCH
We would love to hear your thoughts, comments or suggestions on this topic. Please get in touch with us by commenting below or via email to [email protected].
Jonathan’s Voice would also be delighted to hear from you if you’d like to discuss your own organisation’s needs in more detail. They can provide free advice, seminars, workshops, talks and other forms of support and are happy to visit you in person: contact them via their website or email [email protected].
Thank you for your support, Sabine. The trustees are committed to supporting research into men’s mental health to identify how we all might support men more effectively and reduce the number of those who so tragically die by suicide.
I cannot possibly put into words how grateful I am for the work of Jonathan's Voice in highlighting and supporting research into this incredibly important topic. Thanks ever so much.