Understanding suicide and mental illness in the male population

The strongest man in the world is the man who stands alone” – Henrik Ibsen

The troubling nature of men’s mental health

As an avid fan of documentaries and mental health awareness, I sat down and tuned into Roman Kemp’s BBC Three documentary ‘Our Silent Emergency’. In this documentary we saw the TV presenter embark on a journey to understand why his male best friend took his own life.  Whilst filming his journey in life he invited us viewers to witness how his friend’s passing impacted on his own mental health. The TV presenter appeared to struggle to share his emotions with his family and friends. He also admitted to battling with suicidal thoughts himself. Critics, as well as myself, have found the documentary to be eye opening and a catalyst to starting a dialogue around men’s mental health.

Another public figure – Joey Essex – also decided to produce a suicide and mental health awareness documentary called ‘Grief and Me’. Similarly, this documentary filmed Joey Essex’s journey in life and searched to understand why his mother committed suicide when he was young. Joey wanted to understand if his mental health issues stem from this tragedy. The reality TV star was seen to struggle with his mental health and resists therapy.

Both Roman and Joey were seen to suppress their emotions and trivialise their worries while exploring mental health and suicide. Unfortunately, recent statistics show that this is all very common within the male population who are taking their lives at an alarming rate by comparison to the female population.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported that in 2019 men accounted for ¾ of suicide deaths that year. More specifically they found that 4,303 men committed suicide compared to 1,388 women. In addition, men are less likely to use mental health services for psychiatric disorders (Addis & Mahalik, 2003). Statistics as well as these documentaries highlight how important it is to understand why men do not seek help and trivialise their mental illness. However, talking from the perspective of a psychology graduate, I believe that in order to understand this tragic phenomenon we need to analyse the concept of gender socialisation as well as the influence of mass media in shaping our mindset.

Photo by Mariya Georgieva, Unsplash

The issues with gender socialisation and the media

From a young age we are taught to think and behave according to our gender. This is creating double standards for men and women. For example, girls are encouraged to be nurturing, docile and expressive. In stark contrast, boys are encouraged to be assertive and independent. This process is known as gender socialisation. Despite of the fact that many scholars consider this process as being helpful and essential to children’s development, I tend to agree with the researchers that this dichotomizes our society and discourages men to disclose mental health problems.

Scholars Nelson and Fivush (2004) explain that these gender narratives remain implicit throughout human development, therefore resulting in sex differences in communication. They believe that gender socialisation encourages girls to be vocal and expressive during their life span. However, they believe that the importance of expression is downplayed in boys’ development. Their insight into gender socialisation can suggest that men do not express their emotions because they are taught from a young age that emotional expression is not what is expected of men. I personally believe that this can explain why men are reluctant to voice their worries to a mental health professional or a loved one.

In addition, the messages that circulate in the media may also explain why men do not seek professional help. For example, a study conducted by Otterbacher, Bates and Clough (2017) found that when traits and words such as ‘rational’, ‘competent’ and ‘independent’ were put into a computer search engine, images of men showed up. I believe that this study suggests that as a society we perceive men to effortlessly handle adversity and embody the notion that strength, handling life alone and with no support. I further believe that if men feel that they do not have these attributes they silence themselves and they feel inadequate. And furthermore, silencing and feeling of inadequacy lead to avoidance of treatment and mental health issues.

Photo by – Derick Anies, Unsplash

And now what?

With all these in mind, some may think that the solution is the eradication of gender socialisation. However, these process together with the gender narratives are inherent in the dynamic of our society thus difficult to rewire. I believe that we now need to heavily rely on the media to publicise mental health awareness and information that educates the masses. I moreover believe this is the first step in improving men’s mental health and raising awareness of the need for taking and asking for support.

For example, a study conducted by Hofner and Cohen (2018) found that informational media coverage of depression and suicide was significantly related to individuals’ willingness to seek treatment. This study can prove that informing the public about these matters boosts people’s confidence in seeking treatment. It suggests that more public mental health campaigns need to be commissioned to educate more individuals and inspire change. I believe that ITV’s Britain Get Talking Campaign was poignant and exemplary of what we need to do as a society to change the narrative of men’s mental health.  I understand that it may not be the only solution to men’s mental health struggles, but it may be the first step in encouraging more communication and more openness within the male population.

Written by-  Romani Reid

Top photo – Kumpan Electrics, Unsplash

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