Content warning: suicide.
One could say that the concept of masculinity is like Fight Club: the first rule is that you don’t talk about it. Indeed, this curious comparison is more pertinent than it may first appear; the inability of men to express their state of mind leaves a vast demographic of people ‘battered and bruised’ by their trials with mental health, tragically leading to a high rate of male suicide. This, therefore, begs the question: are we facing a ‘crisis of masculinity’?
Information published by Samaritans has shown that suicide is the most common cause of death for men in the 18-50 age bracket, killing just over 5,000 men in 2016. Not only does this show a marked increase from recent years, it is also notable that 78 per cent of suicides in the UK involve men, an increase from 63 per cent in 1981.
Women are less likely to commit suicide in part because they are far more likely to search for treatment for psychological issues than men (only 25 per cent of all suicides are committed by those diagnosed with mental health issues).
Importantly however, the rate of calls to the Samaritans’ helpline about issues such as depression shows the inverse, that men are more likely to talk if it is anonymous. That this is the case demonstrates the fundamental crisis with masculinity today. In a world where, as studies have allegedly shown, men are less anxious at the prospect of death than at the prospect of seeking psychological aid, the crisis of masculinity truly is all about status.
The notion that the most at-risk demographic are men in their 40s would support this idea. This suggests that an increase in suicide is due to changing societal expectations of men, which have left many stuck between two forms of masculinity. Men are often unable to perform the ‘traditional’ male role they believe they should, whilst simultaneously not being able to vocalise their anxiety about this due to the fear that this would be emasculating. Man’s role has undoubtedly shifted in the last couple of decades, with women increasingly taking on a greater role in the workplace, once the domain of men. This has led some to argue that an increase in male depression has partially been catalysed by this inability to play the traditional patriarchal role, arguably supported by the statistic that 80 per cent of men consider the title of primary wage earner to be important to self-esteem.
When examined more closely, however, this is shown to be a result of societal expectations. Three quarters of those that consider their role as primary breadwinner to be important for their self-esteem do so due to the misconception that women value wage stability above all else when, in reality, this is only true of six per cent of women. In fact, further studies have shown that men prefer not being the sole wage earner, due to the decrease in stress this brings. This hammers home the point that what men want, and what they feel they should want, often fail to coincide. As such, the cloud of depression that surrounds men can be seen as the result of an anxiety over irrelevance, due to the changing role of man, in addition to a lack of vocalisation entrenched by a desire to remain stoic, tough and self-reliant – traits that are ‘masculine’.
The research suggests that, although alarming rates of male suicide indicate that we are reaching a crisis point around ‘masculinity’, compounded by society’s failure to instigate sufficient suicide prevention programmes, it is not a crisis in the way men perform masculinity overall. It is not the fact that modern males are being deprived of their traditional masculine role, but rather the expectation that this is the correct way of being a man.
Image: Kat Cassidy