The male suicide rate is at a 14 year high. Today alone 13 men in the UK will take their own lives. The age group most at risk is men between the ages of 45 and 59. Among men between 20 and 34 suicide is the leading cause of death. Surely these statistics point to a mental health emergency yet none is being declared? And why is this happening?
Culturally our society still victim blames people who suffer from common mental health conditions like depression. There is a perception that depression is self-inflicted, that it is a weakness and makes a man less of a man. Sufferers self-stigmatise and think they are to blame for their condition. Only people who have problems with their brain could possibly think they have caused it. Most people don’t want to come out about depression. It is one of society’s last taboos. And arguably it is worse for men in traditionally very male environments.
Imagine that you are a guy working in the macho world of banking in the City. Don’t shriek: of course it’s still a man’s world. As a woman in that environment you are either being one of the lads or being harassed or you get sales because you are good-looking not because you have a brain. Nowhere will you find a “manlier” man or men who collectively snigger at feminism like it is a rude word.
The microcosm that is the City is a great example of why men don’t open up about mental health. Everyone knows a story about a guy who had a blow out and never came to work again. He just disappeared overnight. “Mad” people are escorted from the building because if they cannot take the heat they must leave the kitchen.
Socially men are conditioned not to be open about feelings. The phrase “man up” says it all. It is not biological conditioning that causes this. It is the messages boys and men get from society. At a time of unparalleled inequality perhaps men are feeling they do not know their place in the world. Having mental illness is not OK.
The world of work has changed and there is no job security. Ageism is rampant in the City. Being a banker past 50 is a rarity. And if you get kicked out you know you won’t ever work there again. It’s a young man’s game. Yet more pressure. And we all know that men who retire early die early because they define themselves by what they do not who they are.
It’s no surprise that the current spike in male suicide rates dates from 2007 when the banking crisis hit. Job insecurity, financial problems and above all feeling immense pressure that men are supposed to be the breadwinner, says social conditioning, yet cannot be open about being in crisis. A number of organisations including CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) and the Mental Health Foundation are specifically addressing awareness campaigns to men. Something has to be done to stem the tide of suicides. Technology and the alienation it causes from social interaction, the loss of a sense of community and family life must have a part to play in this too.
Improvement in suicide rates for me is all about changing the environment. At work, in the City and elsewhere, men must be encouraged to seek help when the burden gets too great. In a CALM study of 2,000 men a staggering 40% admitted they had thought about suicide. The same percentage said they would never talk about their feelings or want to “make a fuss”. How can we encourage men to open up and seek help without shame and stigma? We cannot just sit back and watch.
Employers who understand wellbeing have a key role to play in preventing suicide and in ensuring a mentally healthy and supportive environment. Most large City organisations have networks for LGBT, women, BMEs. Who has a men’s mental health network? Well without broader openness and a willingness to attack the social stigma that’s unlikely to happen any time soon. Employers are left with presenteeism from people too stressed to work but who show up through job insecurity. This impacts productivity more than absenteeism. But are there other solutions?
It most certainly does help when a C-suite executive opens up about mental health. A top down approach is good but it has to be felt on the ground and managers need to buy into it. Managers should be assessed and rewarded on their ability to run healthy teams. A top-down approach opens the door for others to come forward. But they must be able to do so without fearing that admitting mental health issues is a short cut to the door. Sadly, this is what we see all too often. The law does not always provide an appropriate or affordable remedy. Employers need to get behind prevention and intervene before it’s too late. Confidential counselling should be an integral offering in all workplaces. Training managers to spot the usually very easy signs of a mental health crisis is another useful practice. Working collectively to create a culture where openness is encouraged is the nirvana. Bit by bit we can get there and we can save lives along the way.
This article was also published in the Huffington Post.