On middle-aged men and suicide

The government is launching a new strategy aimed at preventing suicide in England.1 One of the key statistics that form part of the background to the strategy, and the one that has attracted most media attention, is the fact that the group that is now at most risk of suicide is middle aged men (35-49), whereas in the past it has been young men.

Some readers might question this definition of ‘middle age’, especially when life expectancy is slowly but steadily approaching 100, and the fact that many people in their 50s and 60s probably do not consider themselves to be ‘old’. However, even if we were to redefine this age group as ‘young middle aged (or even ‘young to mid-middle aged’?) we still have to wonder why this particular group appears to be most at risk.

Overall, according to the figures, males are three times more likely to take their own lives than females. It is also worth noting that most people who take their own lives have not been in contact with mental health services. This seems to be consistent with the fact that men, as a whole, are far more reluctant to present themselves to their GP or other health professional than women. But it is still not clear why ‘middle aged’ men are the most vulnerable, although there is some speculation in the introduction to the strategy that this may be linked to economic worries and the current recession. However, before taking a closer look at this possibility it might be helpful to take a more general look at why people take their own lives.

There are many theories about why people commit or attempt to commit suicide. One particularly interesting one was originally developed by the French sociologist Emile Durkheim at the end of the nineteenth century, and is still very relevant today. Durkheim identified a number of different types of suicide, but there are two which I think are particularly relevant when looking at male suicide in general, and middle aged male suicide in particular.

The first is linked to the idea of anomie, which is essentially a breakdown of social bonds between an individual and their community (the word anomie means normlessness, lacking in social norms).  Another way to look at anomie is as a lack of roots, a lack of meaningful social relationships. Anomic suicide, to use the sociological jargon, tends to happen in societies where norms and values are disrupted by rapid social change, and increases during times of economic depression or, ironically perhaps, economic boom.

The second type is egoistic suicide and is linked to excessive individualism. In other words, individuals are insufficiently integrated into social groups and the wider society. Durkheim used the notion of egoistic suicide to explain the difference in suicide rates between Protestants and Roman Catholics – Catholics being more strongly integrated.

What has this got to do with middle aged men? I would suggest that this group in particular are both the most individualistic and the most lacking in social roots. In other words, they are the most egoistic and the most anomic. Now, as far as I’m aware, there is no ‘hard’ evidence for this.  However, it’s hard to see how economic worries and recession alone could explain why this particular group is so vulnerable. After all, it’s not only middle age men that are being affected by the current economic woes.

Of course, it can be argued that, broadly speaking, for many people the age range 35-49 is the period of peak (economic) performance and establishing a successful career. At the same time it can also be a time of greatest economic burden – mortgages, bringing up children (and increasingly, having to accommodate grown-up children who are finding it difficult to survive in a harsh climate). In other words, it’s not surprising that people in this age range are being particularly affected by the economic situation. However, in principle this applies as much to women as it does to men.

So why would men of this age group be particularly affected? One possibility is that although both men and women may be investing a great deal in developing their careers and earning a living, for many men this is the number one priority, often at the expense of everything else.  Women, on the other hand, may be better at managing competing and multiple priorities and commitments, including bringing up a family and nurturing social relationships. In other words, they may well have much better social roots and connections than men.

Ironically, in many careers, having both an ‘egoistic’ and ‘anomic’ attitude and lifestyle can be a positive advantage, at least to start with. In other words, not having too many emotional and community ties which then have to be broken; being prepared to uproot quickly; following one’s own interests at the expense of others.

However, if things start going wrong in a person’s career, this group (middle aged men) are likely to be particularly vulnerable in a psychological sense. Their lack of roots and social bonding becomes all too apparent – just when they need them most.   Whereas in the past, and when things were going well for them, their individualism and lack of social attachment may have been a positive advantage,  now it becomes a major disadvantage.  Suddenly thy find themselves feeling very much alone and isolated, and this is when there is a real danger of depression or even worse.  And even if things don’t go wrong in a more obvious way, for example being made redundant, at some point this individualistic and anomic lifestyle, this rootless existence, may simply become too much to bear.

The real tragedy of all this is that the kind of existential crisis (because that’s what it is) that often ends in suicide could be the very moment when the individual in question takes a step back from the brink and realises that they could be living a different life.  However, in order to do this they would first have to accept that they do not exist in a vacuum, that they are part of a wider community and society, however much they may like to think they are self-sufficient and beholden to no-one.

  1. http://www.dh.gov.uk/health/files/2012/09/Preventing-Suicide-in-England-A-cross-government-outcomes-strategy-to-save-lives.pdf []