Male Suicide

Why Toxic Ideas of Masculinity Need to Change

It has been a tragic few days for music fans. On Thursday, the lead singer of nu-metal band Linkin Park Chester Bennington was found dead at the age of 41 in his home in Los Angeles. Bennington died on the day that would have been his friend Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell’s 53rd birthday. Cornell hanged himself a couple of months ago.

Bennington and Cornell were in the highest risk group for suicide– they were middle-aged men. The current cohort of middle-aged men occupy a peculiar position. Exceptionally high suicide rates have followed this generation through from youth to middle age. A 2012 Samaritans report labelled them the buffer generation, sandwiched between two sets of ideals.

Older men are more likely to express austere, silent, stoic forms of masculinity. There are costs to this, of course, but older generations also grew up with greater male privilege and access to more male-centric spaces such as working men’s clubs, pubs and trade unions which validated masculinity.

There is a long way to go before we can claim young men grow up in a progressive, emotionally open environment. However millennials celebrate an ever-expanding range of masculine identities, adding a dollop of gender trickery to male/female dichotomies, and lauding celebrities who speak openly about emotional pain.

Men in general are three times more likely to take their own lives than women. Things that rock confidence in early years can play a role, such as having been bullied or traumatised. Bennington and Cornell certainly both spoke of horrific childhood experiences. Like many men, they turned to externalising behaviours such as expressing anger and abusing booze and drugs to cope. These can help in the short-term but tend to increase emptiness, despair and impulsivity.

Women are more likely to interiorise their feelings, talk about problems, and seek support from friends and professionals. They are also less likely to attempt suicide using violent means. The Barber Shop and Men’s Sheds movements recognise men’s differences, providing spaces where men can talk with less pressure. Such initiatives are vital to suicide prevention.

Relationship breakdown and bereavement are well-known triggers for male suicide. The average age for divorce is 45, with middle-aged men more likely to live alone than ever before. Research suggests women tend to do better after divorce because they have acted as social glue in the relationship, and thus find it easier to maintain contact with friends and family. Without this glue, men can find they have fallen off the social radar at a time of loss and often perceived failure. Men’s same-sex friendships are more likely to wane after the age of 30, and men are often reluctant to reach out to old mates for support.

Suicide is contagious. If someone kills themselves in a community, the chances of other attempts increases significantly. Celebrity deaths often produce a similar spike. Given the cohort of men who grew up with Bennington and Cornell are at the greatest risk of killing themselves, and with four out of ten men having considered suicide, perhaps now is the time to start conversations about loneliness, alienation and suicidal despair with middle-aged men in your communities.

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