The curse of the male breadwinner: suicide and Covid-19

Content Warning: Suicide and Coronavirus.

The month of September marks International Suicide Prevention Month. Suicide prevention month aims to spread awareness and tackle misconceptions around mental illness and suicide, two topics which are greatly misunderstood. Suicide Prevention Month 2020 is especially important as there has been many discussions around the affect of Covid-19 and the nationwide lockdown on mental health. In 1951, Emilie Durkheim conducted a psychological study which found that suicide rates increase during times of crisis, a result which is particularly relevant as the UK enters another recession and potentially a second wave of Covid-19. 

Since the 1990s, men have made up ¾ of suicide victims in the UK. Last year, male suicide rates were the highest they have been since 2000. Even without Covid-19, 2020 was projected to be even higher than 2019. 

Multiple triggers for suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts exist aside from pre-existing mental illness. These triggers include isolation and loneliness, financial problems, anger, relationship problems, and fear, and these are all being exacerbated by the current pandemic and national lockdown. All of these triggers are applicable to men, women and non-binary people. However, their specific effect on men is unique in the way that they interact with masculine stereotypes. 

There are two specific stereotypes which can explain the affect of these triggers on male suicide rates, both of which have relations to the masculine rejection of traits that are perceived to be feminine. Women have, throughout history, been defined by their biological ability to carry children. Feminine trait stereotypes are derived from emotions that can be related to pregnancy and menstruation, as well as maternal empathy. They are further established by socialisation to ensure production of a ‘feminine ideal.’ 

“15% of women seek mental health treatment compared to only 9% of men”

Unlike women, men are socialised to suppress emotions. Emotions have been throughout history associated with women and weakness. Men, therefore, have been discouraged from expressing emotion or handling their emotions in any way other than anger. According to the Mental Health Foundation, 15% of women seek mental health treatment compared to only 9% of men. The derision of self care amongst men has resulted in many cases of depression and other mental illness going unnoticed and untreated, and when mental illness goes untreated, many people are driven to suicide. 

The stereotype of the male breadwinner also influences men’s mental health. The male breadwinner has been a stereotype since the 19th Century, when family incomes changed from being earned as a family unit to being earned solely by the patriarch of the family. Much like the aforementioned stereotype that men don’t cry, the stereotype of the male breadwinner is centred around the socialised male desire to appear strong at any cost. Single breadwinner households are still a prevalent family model within 1.6 million UK families, and two thirds of these households have a male as the sole earner. Pre-pandemic, these households and these men were already under immense financial pressure, which has only been exacerbated by the lockdown induced unemployment rise. 

“The welfare of the country is now reliant on roles fulfilled by mainly women who are doing a job informed by their emotions and their empathy.”

According to the Bank of England, unemployment will reach 2.5 million as a result of Covid-19.  In part time labour alone, 70% of workers found themselves out of work or furloughed. Women dominate the part-time labour field and with many of them out of work, families that may be used to dual income have become a single breadwinner household and are now experiencing increased levels of economic insecurity.  

Economic instability is not the only way that unemployment affects men’s mental health. Unemployment also affects a man’s view of his own usefulness. A 2014 study by Brown and Roberts found that men’s wellbeing is somewhat tied to the employment status of their wives. They found that men who hold traditional gendered views have lower well being when their wives work, and men with more modern views on gender only have higher wellbeing if their wives work a part-time job but are the highest earner. Both of these groups of men may have been negatively affected by the changes to employment during lockdown. Women make up 77% of the high risk work force and 79% of health care workers. Men whose female partners work in these high risk jobs may suffer from feelings of inadequacy and failing masculinity as their wives are still working full time on the front line whilst they are furloughed or unemployed. 

Throughout history, men have been on the front line during a crisis, whether its as soldiers or as world leaders. Covid-19 has turned this tradition on it’s head; healthcare workers, the majority of whom are women, are now on the front line. The welfare of the country is now reliant on roles fulfilled by mainly women who are doing a job informed by their emotions and their empathy. This places women in a position which demonstrates and celebrates their strength, knowledge and emotions.

As more women are seen as strong, there is a greater chance that gender stereotypes relating to femininity, emotional openness, and weakness will be broken down, and their harm on both men and women can be reduced. 

“No one can help if no one knows.”

The financial crash of 2008 was the most recent economic crisis from which we can examine the relationship between economic crises and male mental health. Following the 2008 crash, unemployment in the UK was at 2.47 million in June 2009.  A 2013 study by Chang found that male suicide rates increased globally by 3.3% whilst there was no evidence of change in female suicide rates. With Covid-19 creating the first recession since the 2008 financial crash, it would not be out of the question that male mental health would deteriorate in the same way. Chang’s study also provided tangible numbers for the number of “excess” suicides following the 2008 crash. He found that there were 4900 “excessive suicides”. Already in 2020, there has been an increase of between 2135 and 9570 additional suicide deaths in the UK. This demonstrates not only the applicability of the 2008 findings on the current crisis, but also provides clear evidence that mental health is yet another area which the Covid-19 pandemic has harmed. 

Covid-19 has shown the world the importance of all kinds of preventative action regarding health, including mental health. With men suffering disproportionately and the existence of  a precedent for an increase in male suicide during times of crisis, it is essential to examine why that is and what can be done to help it. Many of the triggers for male suicide are linked to issues that feminist movements have been shedding light on for decades, such as the rejection of femininity, thus the disproportionality of male suicide is also a feminist issue and any work to dismantle gender stereotypes will serve in reducing male suicide in future generations. However, the most important way to decrease male suicide numbers is to encourage men to seek help whether that be medication, therapy or simply confiding in friends and family. No one can help if no one knows. 

Please find below a collection of links to mental health services which are free and accessible to anyone.