The government must take the issue of suicide in older men seriously

A Guardian article last week noted how the number of suicides among men aged over 55 has risen by 12% in the last 10 years, while suicides by men aged under 34 dropped by 30%, according to recently released ONS figures.

It's worth briefly considering how we can account for these figures. Is it related to internal psychological factors, a generation of younger men a small number of whom were predisposed to suicide growing older? Or is it because of external factors, such as the impact of the economic recession? The reality is probably a combination of the two.

It seems very likely that the recession has played its part in suicides in the UK but one would perhaps expect this increase to be more profound among younger people, disenchanted by the difficulties of finding work in such straightened economic circumstances. But the effects of unemployment in older men, particularly those who have held down the same job for many years and have suddenly been made redundant, must be even more acute. After all, young people are at the beginning of their working lives and may expect a few false starts and let downs before they find their correct career path.

But older people may have settled into their jobs, never really thinking they would have to reinvent themselves and look for work again, which can be a trying and gruelling experience in a job market where age discrimination is still so prevalent. On the other hand, we could speculate that the rate may swing back to younger men in the next five years because of the longer term impact of the recession on youth unemployment, where numerous false starts and let downs begin to accumulate and reach a critical point.

In any case, these statistics show that it's time that the issue of older people and mental illness gets back on the agenda, something that here at the Mental Health Foundation we have been calling for, for a long time. In 2010 we completed a two-year project called 'Grouchy Old Men?' which aimed to help develop services that engage isolated older men and promote good mental health and well-being. In addition to a successful one day training workshop we produced a service improvement guide which you can download here.

But there is still the deeper question of why men in particular are consistently more likely to take their own lives than women. It is true that men are more prone to destructive and self-destructive behaviour such as alcoholism, violence and crime, so suicide, as the ultimate self-destructive act, may just be another symptom of this seemingly widespread, innate predisposition.

In addition to this, we know that men are generally more likely to bottle up feelings and less likely to seek medical help for mental health issues, perhaps feeling that doing so would go against their ‘masculinity’. This popular concept of masculinity as an embodiment of physical and emotional strength has an intrinsic flaw, namely, the conflation of mental ‘health’ with mental ‘strength’.

Thus, poor mental health can become synonymous, in many men’s minds, with mental ‘weakness’ – an illness is conceptualised as an intrinsic character flaw, and therefore something not only to be ashamed of, but also something that can only be remedied by the man himself. In other words, to seek help would be seen as admitting defeat. This, of course, is a simplification of what is a complex issue, but it shows how important it is to have a proper debate on mental health within men, to find out exactly what is going on here on a societal level.

Certainly, these new findings about suicide should act as a powerful reminder to the Government that it must take the issue of older men, and indeed men in general, seriously in its new suicide prevention strategy which is due to be published in September.