Less Grouchy, More Grim: Suicide Rates are Rising in Middle Aged Men

In 2010 the Mental Health Foundation published a booklet called Grouchy Old Men? It was about older men’s mental health and some practical advice on how to provide appropriate support to men experiencing difficulties.

At the time it was published the total number of suicides was 5,675, a figure that had been falling for a number of years previously, although men were still three times more likely to kill themselves than women (a ratio which has remained consistent for several decades). In the late 1990s the focus was on the high rates of suicide among young men and the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) was set up explicitly to try and address this, working only with men under the age of 35.

The publication of the most recent data on suicide makes for grim and somewhat surprising reading. Suicides among men and women in 2013 are 4% higher than the previous year. The proportion of men taking their own lives (4,858 out of a total of 6,233) is at its highest level since 2001. But the group most at risk are those aged between 45 and 59 (for both men and women) and the only group where the rate did not increase was among men under the age of 30. In 2011 the highest suicide rate among men was in the group aged between 30-44. The suicide rate among men aged between 15-29 has dropped significantly between 2001 and 2011.

So what do we make of these figures, each one representing a loss that was almost certainly felt as an enormous tragedy by family and friends. The Office of National Statistics which publishes the data suggested that “the recent recession could be an influencing factor in the increase in suicides” and that “areas with greatest rises in unemployment had also experienced higher rises in male suicides”. This sounds like a rational, but depressing explanation, but why wouldn’t this affect younger men as much as older men? One would think that bleak prospects of little or low paid work and significantly reduced chances of living independently would affect young men as much as poor employment opportunities would affect older men. And shouldn’t more established social networks for older men offer some protection against feelings of hopelessness and futility?

Could another possible explanation involve this particular generation of middle aged men, which included the second wave of so-called ‘baby boomers’, born in the late 1950s and early 1960s, as well as those born in the following ten years up to the early 1970s[1]? This was a generation of men for whom jobs in traditional industries were disappearing rapidly and notions of masculinity were being fundamentally questioned, usually without very satisfactory answers, as they were growing into manhood. They were supposedly a generation who should have inherited an era of ‘you’ve never had it so good’ but that was steadily receding before their eyes. Of course, women were affected by this too, but opportunities afforded by an expansion in higher education and jobs in non-traditional male sectors of the economy may have provided some mitigation.

Who knows? Grouchy Old Men? suggested that a lot of older men born pre-World War II may have had a ‘stiff upper lip’ attitude to health problems, and many baby boomers born immediately post-war benefitted much more from economic growth, the expansion of the welfare state, and liberalisation in society that occurred in the 1960s (as we suggested in our report on this generation published in 2013). But having been born in 1963 it’s a nagging thought that my generation could be one that is more associated with grim statistics, rather than a grouchy stereotype. Finding ways of avoiding both should be a priority, for both men and women.

[1] See Williamson, T (2013) "Baby boomers – growing older but getting on with life?", Working with Older People, Vol. 17 Iss: 4, pp.157 - 163