International Men's Day

Patricia Gibson Excerpts
Tuesday 21st November 2023

(8 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Patricia Gibson Portrait Patricia Gibson (North Ayrshire and Arran) (SNP)
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I am delighted to participate in this debate to mark International Men’s Day 2023. I thank the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) not just for securing the debate, but for the sensitive way that he drew out some very important issues that too often get buried under other matters that we discuss in this place. It is important that we continue to talk about gender equality, equal pay and the pension gender gap, but that does not mean that we cannot be cognisant of and exercised about the very important public health and social challenges that face men and boys. There is no doubt that those challenges and issues exist.

The theme of International Men’s Day 2023 is “Zero Male Suicide”, and that is where I want to focus my attention. The need to help men and boys cope with and understand mental health issues is beyond urgent. As we have heard, the overall suicide rate is 13.9 per 100,000 people—a similar figure to previous years—but male suicide rates are still three times as high as female rates, and in Scotland, 556 men died by suicide last year. Behind every statistic lies a family torn apart and a life that ought not to have been lost.

Suicide is the No. 1 killer of men under the age of 45 in the UK. It kills more men under 45 than car accidents, cancer, drug or alcohol addiction, or any other issue that can end lives. The fact that men take their lives by their own hands in such numbers is truly heartbreaking. We can wring our hands, but there must be something more we can do to reduce those awful statistics. Key to that is seeking to understand why so many men resort to suicide, which is a terrible last act of despair.

One explanation that many point to is the fact that males have traditionally not been expected to admit when they are finding life difficult. A number of Members have talked about the awful expressions that are often used, including “toughing it out” and “manning up”, which the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) first mentioned. As a result, men and boys often find it hard to admit when they are struggling and need support, and that can only undermine their mental health and increase their sense of isolation. Problems mount up, but they feel it is weak if they admit it, ask for help or simply need a chat to share their concerns and process their feelings. Instead, they are much more likely to internalise their feelings, which often detrimentally impacts their relationships with their family members and friends—their children, their wives and their extended social relationships.

How we as a society adjust our expectations of men is important. It is okay for someone to admit that they are struggling; it is not a sign of weakness. As boys grow up and develop in their homes, families, schools, workplaces and universities, we need them to learn that they will sometimes need support and that there is no stigma attached to talking to someone if they are suffering. In fact, it is perfectly normal, and actually it could be seen as a sign of strength. If we cannot get men and boys to open up and share their worries, concerns and problems with those closest to them, or a support organisation if that is easier for them, we are unlikely to make a meaningful dent in those awful statistics. Each number is a family torn apart—a life lost that could have been saved.

Although we know that suicide is the biggest cause of death in males under the age of 45, we also know that when it happens, the loved ones left behind are often bewildered. They often did not see it coming. For the rest of their lives, they are left with questions—“What did I miss?”, “Could I have done something to prevent this?”, “Why did they not talk to me?” That is why suicide does not just take lives but tears families apart and leaves wounds that truly never heal.

I pay tribute to the wonderful UK Men’s Sheds Association. In my constituency, I have seen at first hand the fantastic work undertaken by the Three Towns Men’s Shed, which serves Ardrossan, Saltcoats and Stevenston, and the Garnock Valley Men’s Shed, which serves the towns of Kilbirnie, Beith and Dalry. In these sheds, men get together to offer each other friendship, camaraderie and a sympathetic ear. They share practical skills, experiences and problems, and provide a shoulder for each other when times are tough. Men helping each other in their communities is what a men’s shed does at its best, and it is not overstating the case to say that men’s sheds have the potential to transform and save the lives of the men who join them.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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The hon. Lady is right to underline the issue of men’s sheds. I can think of four men’s sheds in my constituency: in Saintfield—I see them on the third Saturday of every month—Portaferry, Newtownards and Ballybeen. Those four men’s sheds have saved lives, which is what she is referring to.

Patricia Gibson Portrait Patricia Gibson
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I am delighted with the men’s sheds in my constituency, because the three towns in the Garnock valley are post-industrial areas with great socioeconomic challenges. Sadly, we know that people who are socially and economically disadvantaged are also those at higher risk of suicide and at higher risk of developing mental illness. Middle-aged men living in the most deprived areas face an even higher risk of suicide, with rates of up to 36.6 per 100,000, compared with 13.5 per 100,000 in the least deprived areas.

The changing nature of the labour market over the last 60 years has particularly affected working-class men. With the decline of traditional male industries, they have lost not only their jobs, but a source of masculine pride and identity. We also know that men in midlife tend to remain overwhelmingly dependent on a female partner for emotional support, but today, men are less likely to have one lifelong partner and more likely to live alone, without the social or emotional skills to fall back on. Undoubtedly, loneliness is a significant factor in many male suicides; it puts men’s suicide risk at a higher level. Men’s sheds can truly mitigate that and help men to strengthen their social relationships.

I will briefly mention the impact of allotments. In my constituency, we have the Elm Park allotment in Ardrossan and the Kilbirnie allotment on Sersley Drive, which allow men to get out into the open air and forge friendships. Otherwise, they may be sitting at home, watching the telly and becoming catatonic with loneliness. At the allotments, they develop relationships with other volunteers in a very healthy outdoor environment. In my view, things that build the social fabric of our community, and which help men get together, save lives.

Cherilyn Mackrory Portrait Cherilyn Mackrory
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I think the hon. Lady answered my point. Does she feel, as I do, that the way in which society is driving more and more people to be isolated at home with screens, rather than to be out in a community and speaking to other humans, is not healthy? It may end up exacerbating the problem.

--- Later in debate ---
Patricia Gibson Portrait Patricia Gibson
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Indeed it does, and men are particularly prone to isolation. Women are much more likely to make friendships and chat to people—men not so much.

The value of men’s sheds and allotments cannot be underestimated. On their own, they are not a silver bullet—nothing is—but we are looking to use every tool in our armoury to tackle the terrible phenomenon of male suicide. The Scottish Government provide a lot of support for men’s sheds but, as always, I would like to see more. There is never enough, especially given the transformational power that men’s sheds and allotments have.

The idea of a Minister for men has been mooted today. Given what we know about the suicide statistics and men’s health, I do not think that the idea should be dismissed. It should be actively explored.

It is very important that we have acknowledged and marked International Men’s Day. I know some people do not think that such a day matters, which is part of the problem. We need to acknowledge that our fathers, brothers, sons and husbands can struggle and feel unable to admit it. I agree with the hon. Member for Don Valley that it is in all our interests—it is in the interests of girls, mums, wives and sisters—that men and boys feel supported and fulfilled, so that they can have a true stake in the future and, in turn, become better role models for their sons. International Men’s Day gives us the chance to set time aside specifically to show that the male suicide and public health problems that we see need not happen. A much-needed light must be shone on the importance of men and boys asking for support. As we know to our cost, too often the lives of men and boys depend on it.