Described as a silent epidemic, male suicide is worryingly on the rise. The suicide rate for men in England and Wales in 2019 was the highest for two decades. In the UK and Ireland, men are three to four times more likely to die by suicide than women, with men in the 45-49 age bracket at the highest risk. It is clear that prevention strategies need to be targeted and focused and the earlier we can do this, and sustain support throughout life, the better.
This, of course, requires funding and the will to prioritise mental health and wellbeing in the wider community, as well as the structures in society that can also support mental health, for example, employment that pays sufficiently to provide adequate shelter, food and leisure, and easy access to support and treatment at times of need. Schools cannot, and should not, shoulder this alone, but there is no doubt that anyone working in education can help to place mental wellbeing at the heart of what we do.
Psychologist Dr John Barry feels that there are some signs and symptoms of distress that teachers can be on the look out for in the boys and young men that they teach to help prevent death by suicide. “Signs of distress in boys and young men are often overlooked because they don't fit the stereotype for being distressed. These are being angry, aggressive, withdrawn, or hyperactive,” Dr Barry explained. “The source of being upset might be related to issues at home (for example family breakdown) or personal issues more broadly (for example being bullied).”
When teachers sense that the mental health of a boy or young man that they are teaching is deteriorating, there are steps that can be taken and strategies to employ. Dr Barry suggests, “In general, males are less likely to want to talk about their feelings than are females. Try not to be put off by a boy or young man who is showing aggression or indifference to being helped. He might presume that nobody can really help him, or that if he talks about his feelings he will be looked down on, or even his words will be used against him. In some cases these fears might be real for example if the issues involve drugs or gangs etc. In some cases the boy might prefer to talk to a man for example if the issue is sex-related. Talking about feelings is great but can be difficult to achieve in the usual counselling setting, and is sometimes more effectively done as part of another activity for example taking a walk, playing football, basketball etc.”
When it comes to encouraging activities that will consistently boost overall wellbeing in boys and young men, Dr Barry recommends sport, exercise and less time in front of screens. These are all worth promoting, and can be undertaken by almost anyone. As first steps in helping to negotiate deteriorating mental health, they are well worth taking.
Five key points on supporting the mental health of boys and young men
1. Normalise discussing things
The more all children get used to talking about what they feeling, what is important to them, what they are looking forward to and what they fear, it may be easier for them to communicate in a crisis. Help them to find and value their voice.
Always listen without judgement. Each word is likely to be significant so aim to make a record of what is said to pass on to the appropriate support if necessary.
3. Targeted support
There are many sources of help for boys and young men who may need support through mental health difficulties, but as Dr Barry acknowledges, they “tend to offer gender neutral approaches or approaches that focus on talking about feelings.” Sources of help may not always be appropriate for some boys and young men so it is worth taking the time to establish the suitability of sources of support based on the needs of the child or young person involved.
4. Be present in a crisis
For a young person in crisis, you may need to stay with them until mental health support arrives. Those professionals may need to establish whether they intend to end their life – those difficult questions will help to guide those in support roles.
5. Equalise mental and physical wellbeing
Help boys and young men to understand that their mental wellbeing is as important as their physical wellbeing. Clear messaging to that effect strategically placed around your building is bound to help.
Any gendered talk with regard to wellbeing is bound to involve generalisations, but we do need to acknowledge, and act on, the fact that support for boys may well look different from support for girls. And with suicide statistics being what they are, we have to do something.
Find out more…
- Perspectives in Male Psychology: An Introduction is edited by Dr John Barry and available here.
- Palgrave Handbook of Male Psychology & Mental Health
- Charlie Waller Memorial Trust
- Young Minds
Are you looking for your next role?
About the author
After graduating with a degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Reading, Elizabeth Holmes completed her PGCE at the Institute of Education, University of London. She then taught humanities and social sciences in schools in London, Oxfordshire and West Sussex, where she ran the history department in a challenging comprehensive. Elizabeth specialises in education but also writes on many other issues and themes. As well as her regular blogs for Eteach and FEjobs, her books have been published by a variety of publishers and translated around the world.