June passed by without much recognition for Men’s Mental Health Awareness month, leaving the significant issue of male suicide largely unnoticed. Despite the apparent concern for mental health from politicians and pundits, this particular aspect rarely receives the attention it warrants.
The prevalent gender disparity in suicide rates across different countries cannot be ignored. In Canada and the UK, 75% of suicides are committed by men and, in the US, an astonishing 79% of suicides involve men. In Malta, it was 80% in 2022.
While the disparity in suicide rates has been recognised for some time, effective solutions have been disappointingly scarce. Often, offhand reasons like “men are more likely to use lethal force” are offered. But while this is technically true, attributing the variance in suicide rates solely to the chosen method is a clear oversimplification.
Sadly, even when local politicians express support for improving men’s mental health on social media, their proposed solutions often fall short of being effective. The concept of ‘toxic masculinity’ is often touted as the scapegoat for this issue, along with the ‘macho Mediterranean image’, suggesting that men’s suppression of emotions is the root cause.
However, we must set aside the false notion that male suicide is solely due to men’s inability to express their feelings. Men do share their emotions with trusted individuals but they derive satisfaction from this act in different ways than women. Men do deal with depression, by eating healthily, keeping busy or hitting the gym.
It is worth bearing in mind that mental health issues are not necessarily the main driving force behind the difference. According to the Australian Men’s Mental Health forum, only 44.4% of male suicides are linked to mental health diagnosis. For women it was 63.6%. People who die by suicide, but don’t have a mental health diagnosis, are around five times more likely to be male, they argue.
These findings were repeated in the US where research at Adelphi University, in New York revealed that most male suicides are not linked to a history of mental illness at all. The study found that, within the group of young male participants, seven in 10 of those that died by suicide had no prior mental health issues.
The study also revealed that out of the three in 10 who did have mental health issues, around half of them were receiving treatment for mental illness. This raises doubts about the claim that men don’t ask for help when experiencing mental health problems.
While mental illness and previous suicide attempts play prominent roles in female suicides, for men situational factors play the principal role. Why, then, do we persist in advocating for a gender-neutral approach when the potential for more promising outcomes lies within a gender-specific strategy?
Men are not taking their lives solely because they are depressed but, rather, due to external forces, often leading to the belief that their families would be better off with the life insurance payout, for instance. They genuinely feel more valuable to their loved ones in death.
We must set aside the false notion that male suicide is solely due to men’s inability to express their feelings- Edward Caruana Galizia
Reports from the Australian Men’s Health Forum shed light on the significant impact of financial issues on male suicide, with a staggering 83% of male suicides linked to financial challenges. Pending legal matters also contribute significantly, with 85% of cases associated with this factor, too.
Unemployment, especially recent or pending, accounts for a staggering 86% of male suicides.
Unemployed men are more susceptible to suicide compared to women in similar situations. Economic downturns have long been associated with spikes in suicide rates among men, as was observed during the 2008 financial crisis or, today, in the UK with the cost of living crisis.
Furthermore, The Samaritans in the UK have identified the significant impact of relationship issues on male suicide. Despite improvements in the divorce process, men are still rarely granted sufficient time with their children. Add to that the financial cost of divorce and the subsequent increase in work hours to pay for it and you can easily see how this situation often leads to despair.
The issue at hand, therefore, is not difficult to discern. A man who has recently lost his job, found himself in dire financial crisis, or is going through a divorce would not see spending money he doesn’t have on therapy to discuss his feelings as an apposite and affordable solution. In such circumstances, men would benefit more from the guidance of legal and financial advisers.
Government programmes that assist individuals in acquiring new skills and qualifications for alternative employment are also essential to tackle the issue of unemployment. Scandinavian countries did not see a spike in suicide rates in 2008 for this very reason: they retrained the unemployed. Therapy sessions should still play a role but, at least, the problem causing the stress is fixed.
Suicide prevention efforts should also prioritise targeted support services, legal aid programmes and resources tailored to address the unique pressures men face in legal contexts. By mitigating the risk associated with pending legal issues, we can effectively reduce the incidence of male suicide further.
If we acknowledge the unique challenges faced by men and implement targeted solutions we can make a significant impact on reducing male suicides. Shifting away from a gender-neutral approach, we must adopt a gender-specific strategy that addresses the underlying factors. By recognising and supporting the unique needs of men, we can save lives, families and loved ones.
Edward Caruana Galizia is an actor and has a Master’s degree in culture, diaspora and ethnicity from Birkbeck University of London.