It's time to talk about suicides among middle-aged men

After Chester Bennington's tragic death, we need to examine the societal issues which lead to such high suicide rates among this demographic

Jay Watts
Sunday 23 July 2017 08:59
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Chester Bennington: Music world responds to the death of Linkin Park singer

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 genderfuck to male/female dichotomies, and lauding celebrities who speak openly about emotional pain.

In contrast, middle-aged men straddle vastly different ideals about masculinity. They’ve been raised in a culture telling them to “man up” and hide their emotions, yet are now supposed to be relationally open and emotionally literate. Perhaps we see an element of this conflict in 47-year-old Korn guitarist Brian “Head” Welch’s reaction to Bennington’s death. First, Welch called Bennington’s act “cowardly”, a common attitude for someone of his generation. Then, shamed, he quickly deleted his tweet.

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. Finding ways to help men maintain social bonds across the lifespan is vital.

Losing or not having a job can also be a factor. Eighty per cent of middle aged men consider their job to be “very important” or “important” to their self-esteem. Being the breadwinner is central to masculine identity for this age group, connected with deep-seated beliefs about social rank, the capacity to find a female partner and an idea that middle age should be the prime of life.

Middle-aged men are Thatcher’s children, even more susceptible to the neoliberal idea that work is the ultimate goal of a meaningful life as a consequence of their upbringing.

The 40 per cent jump in mid-life suicide rates since 2008 can be directly correlated with changes in economic opportunity, with men from the lowest social class living in deprived areas ten times more likely to die by suicide in comparison to rich men living in affluent areas. Callers to suicide helplines frequently report that benefits cuts and the insecurity of the gig economy lead people to the edge. Ensuring men who are unemployed or on benefits have adequate means, and feel valued by society, should be an urgent priority.

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.

Inspiration can be taken from organisations such as CALM – the Campaign Against Living Miserably – that works specifically with men, providing a helpline, guidance and events such as comedy nights, sports events and gigs. Its work has a particular blokeish, down-to-earth style which does not attempt to feminise men. CALM encourages men to explore and challenge what it means to be a man and how to cope with suicidal thoughts without medicalising distress.

Bennington and Cornell’s anguished lyrics helped a generation of men feel less alone. Their deaths are a tragedy. However, suicide contagion can turn into suicide hope if their deaths help start conversations about mid-life male despair, and turn the spotlight on the root causes of the silent epidemic.

Jay Watts is a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist

For confidential support, contact Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM), which is specifically for men who are feeling suicidal. The helpline is available from 5pm to midnight daily: 0800 58 58 58. For anyone feeling suicidal or in distress, the Samaritans helpline is available 24 hours a day on 116 123, or email jo@samaritans.org

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