Males who transition out of relationships are at higher risk of developing anxiety – depression and suicide


A new UBC study confirms that when men transition out of relationships, they are at increased risk of mental illness, including anxiety, depression and suicide.

“Most men experienced the onset or worsening of mental illness symptoms during a distressed relationship or following the breakdown of a relationship,” says the study’s lead author Dr. John Oliffe, a Canada Research Chair and UBC professor of nursing whose work focuses on men’s mental health.

He noted that marital separation quadruples the risk of male suicide and suggests that distressed relationships as well as separation and divorce contribute to men’s mental health challenges.

Dr. Oliffe and the team at UBC’s Men’s Health Research Program interviewed 47 men about their experiences with the breakdown of an intimate partner relationship. When faced with conflict in their relationships, men tended to downplay issues, causing the relationship to fracture even further.

“Stereotyped masculinity plays a role in how men react to a broken relationship,” says Dr. Oliffe, who also leads UBC’s Reducing Male Suicide research excellence cluster.

“For example, men’s uncertainty for how to articulate and problem-solve in the relationship context resulted in many men isolating rather than reaching out for help. Most men in the study were battling with transitions in the partnership – like bereavement, parenting or infidelity – and their primary goal was to avoid conflict.”

The study also found that men who were in distress following their breakup used substances, including alcohol, to cope with feelings such as anger, regret, sadness, shame and guilt. This is in addition to the immense uncertainty of what life could look like with less access to children, financial challenges and the loss of social connections.

Complicating these findings is the isolation and disruption caused by COVID-19 public health restrictions, which can lead to increased alcohol and substance use at home, and exacerbate conflict, leading to worsening mental health, Oliffe added.

On the positive side, the study revealed that following the breakdown of a relationship, men did engage a variety of resources to address their mental health needs.

“Help-seeking efforts among these men were wide-ranging and included individual or solitary efforts like exercise, reading and self-care while other men tapped existing networks or extended their efforts to connect with support groups, or attended therapy,” notes Gabriela Montaner, the project lead and co-author on the article.

In thinking about the implication for services, she explained that while men tend to wait until crisis happens before seeking help, they did invest considerable time and effort to move on from, as well as understand their role in the break-up.

“We need to re-conceptualize men’s mental health promotion as legitimately including self-help, informal resources and male peer group services in addition to professional services.”

Dr. Oliffe added: “For the longest time we have treated separation and divorce as demographic data for examining risk factor potential in men’s mental illness and suicide.

The current study findings provide important contexts and direction for getting upstream to assist men to build better relationships, and that is the focus of our current work with Movember.”

Suicidal behaviour is a complex phenomenon—its aetiology spans biological, psychological, environmental, social and cultural facets [1,2]. Male deaths by suicide outnumber those by women in every country in the world [3]. The gender paradox of suicide describes the fact that women are more likely to attempt suicide, but men are more likely to die by suicide [4].

There have been several potential explanations proposed to account for this, including that men may experience or display signs of mental illness differently to women, such as displaying more aggressive or avoidant behaviours [5], which then may predispose them to self-injurious or risky behaviours.

How men cope with difficult life events such as relationship breakdown or unemployment is also relevant [6], similarly linked to engaging in risky behaviours. Moreover, differences in method of suicidal behaviour among men and women may have an influence—for example, men are more likely to use more lethal methods such as firearms [7].

A “failed” suicide may be viewed as weak and a threat to masculinity, whereas a “successful” suicide is viewed as brave and decisive [4]. However, despite the difference in methods, men and women may not differ in terms of suicidal intent [8].

Men may also have difficulties recognising that they are in distress and misinterpret changes in their thoughts and behaviour. Player et al [9] explained that men may not make the connection between their mood, behaviours and suicide risk.

Previous research has also identified particular barriers towards seeking help, among young men, including a fear of being diagnosed with a mental illness, feeling there is “no room for weakness” and intense shame [10].

This may manifest itself as masking emotions and withdrawal from relationships before their death either to protect themselves from being rejected or protect their partner/family member from the pain of losing them to suicide [10]. Danielsson and Johansson [11] also found that men often felt more comfortable describing symptoms of mental illness in terms of physical symptoms as opposed to emotional symptoms.

Methods of support particularly relevant to men who had survived a suicide attempt include distraction as well as practical, emotional and professional support [9]. Providing men with practical support, particularly managing a crisis, may halt the progression from suicidal ideation to behaviour [9].

An enhanced understanding of the male experience of suicidal thoughts and behaviours can also aid support networks in responding to the needs of their loved ones [12]. Fear of being a burden to friends or family and being isolated from others have also been identified as barriers to seeking help in men [13].

By having support from other people that they trust, respect and feel they can relate to, men may feel listened to and be more likely to access help and support on their terms [13]. Reminders of the impact that their death would have on their family may also be significant [9,13].

Previous research has investigated the antecedents to suicidal behaviour in men such as work pressures [14,15], access to means [14] and difficulties in the family or romantic relationships [15,16,17]. However, there is a smaller literature base on how men cope and recover following a suicide attempt [18].

The present study aims to address this gap by exploring the male experience of suicide attempts and recovery. By interviewing men with a history of suicidal thoughts and behaviours, this study allows for the exploration of the antecedents of their suicide attempt and the impact thereafter. The factors that may be protective for men in suicidal crisis are also explored.

The factors contributing to the decision to take their own life differed among the men interviewed. However, certain sub-themes and risk factors prevailed across the interviews. There was a notable shift in their pattern of thinking to single mindedness, that once they had decided to take their own life, nothing could stop them.

By diverting their mind to the mechanics of attempting to take their own life, it perhaps provided some solace in the face of sometimes chaotic emotions or situations. There was a sudden sense of clarity following a period of cognitive and emotional chaos.

The need for help and support was recognised by the interviewees, although some did not know where to access this and did not wish to be viewed as vulnerable or a failure. Further, some participants felt that they had struggled for so long and felt that they could no longer continue to live in their current circumstances.

Prolonged periods of poor mental health or difficult life circumstances prior to the suicide attempt were evident, in line with previous research [2,22]. This is consistent with the Integrated Motivational Volitional (IMV) model [23], as many men expressed that they had reached their limit, contributing to a sense of entrapment, where they felt suicide was the only option.

Further, the discussion of methods may reflect the masculine notion of having an outward display of strength and the desire to avoid being viewed as weak due to a “failed” suicide attempt [4]. This also highlights the importance of attempting to identify potentially vulnerable groups of men before the point at which they’ve expressed suicidal ideation or plans.

Lived experience of suicide and self-injurious behaviours were prevalent, with some men also being affected by the suicidal behaviour of their loved ones. Substance use was common, which could be associated with access to means or how men cope with suicidal thoughts [22,24,25]. The coping strategies detailed were consistent with Rasmussen, Hjelmeland [10], and Cleary [26], as many men felt that they had to avoid these thoughts altogether perhaps due to a fear of what they could be capable of (attempting to take their own life).

This may also be linked to the notion of self-reliance, as many recognised that they did need help but were reluctant or fearful to admit this or did not want to be viewed as a failure [10]. The men also expressed a feeling of pressure to live up to what they felt was a successful male, and a failure to do so resulted in intense feelings of shame [27,28,29]. The social and cultural contexts are also of central importance [18].

For example, many men in this study engaged in avoidant behaviours and appeared to suppress their emotions, perhaps to avoid being viewed as weak and to adhere to perceived cultural norms which discourage disclosure of emotional vulnerability. Examining suicide from a life-course perspective aids understanding of male suicide from different standpoints, such as young people in crisis, mid-life gendered patterns of work and family as well as from the perspective of older adults [17].

The prevailing impact of the suicide attempt was significant—a notion of fragility emanated from the transcripts, with some of the men no longer feeling whole again after their attempt and feeling afraid of going back to that ‘dark’ place once more. This concept of fragility has been noted in previous research [30], perhaps most starkly evident in the fact that men have a lower life expectancy than women in the UK.

Further, fragility in males appears to be mediated by social factors [30] such as reduced life chances due to unemployment and addictions, which has been detailed by the men in this study. In terms of protective factors, many men were so isolated in the run-up to and following their suicide attempt that having someone approach them in the first instance would be a useful step forward.

In particular. It seems that they were often unsure how to reach out for help or even recognise that they were worthy of help. Social connections and relationships with others were important protective factors for many men, particularly feeling valued [9,13].

It was encouraging that men were open to talking about their problems and emotions in this study. However, there are often structural, emotional or political inequalities and conditions which can shape men’s distress which require more comprehensive investment and societal change beyond talking [31].

reference link :

Original Research: Open access.
Masculinity and mental illness in and after men’s intimate partner relationships” by John L. Oliffe et al. Social Science and Medicine—Qualitative Research in Health


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