Monthly Archives: April 2015

Male suicide. Where’s the outrage?

The April 13th edition of BBC TV’s venerable current affairs programme, Panorama, was quite unusual. The edition was called “A death in the family”, presented by the Radio 4 Today programme’s business correspondent, Simon Jack.

Simon explained that he had proposed the programme to Panorama as he approached his 44th birthday and would be the same age as his father was when he committed suicide in 1989. His enquiry after 26 years was not simply into what brought his own father to take his life but also to try and make sense of the statistic he had discovered during his research that just under 5,000 men commit suicide each year in the UK – 100 men every week. Suicide is the biggest cause of death of young men under the age of 50. Close to 80% of all suicides are men.

It wasn’t a traditional Panorama,” Simon told me when I spoke to him a week after the transmission for his reflections not just on the making of the programme but in the response to it. “There was no big ‘reveal’ or an interview pinning down some wrongdoer at the end. “

What there was was a personal story, his own, finding out for the first time about the last weeks of his father’s life, but also a journalistic exercise in exploring whatever facts are available that might place his father’s actions in a bigger picture.

We’d never really talked about it as a family. What I discovered was that my mother was tougher than I thought. I also discovered I was more fragile than I thought. I had to remind myself that I was applying a reporter’s discipline to the story. I didn’t want it to be either a sentimental tale or a freak show.”

In my view he was successful in both those ambitions. As modern measures go, he added 1,000 twitter followers in the hours following transmission. He also received thousands of e mails – “not one nasty one out of 10,000”.

The figures for Scotland, (slightly confused by a recent change in World Health Organisation definition of suicide to include ‘death by undetermined intent’ which adds about 50 a year to the statistics) show a similar shape to the UK pattern but are proportionately worse by most measures. Both men and women have a higher suicide rate than their equivalents in England and Wales.

In 2013, on the old definitions, 570 (76%) of the 746 deaths by suicide were men. That’s between one and two a day. 82 of them in the single age cohort between 40-44.

Largely driven by a disturbing toll of suicides among young men in their teens and twenties in the late 1990s and 2000s, and nodding in the direction of ‘Trainspotting’, a public health initiative called Choose Life was set up by the Scottish Executive specifically to provide interventions to support the groups most at risk. Alongside the long-standing Samaritans phone line a separate helpline called Breathing Space was created within NHS Scotland.

In its most recent report, published last November, Choose Life reported the number of suicides had fallen by 19%, during its 10 years of existence. The numbers in those younger years has fallen by half in that time though suicides in the over 40s has continued to rise substantially.

It is manifest that suicide rates generally increase with increasing deprivation, with rates in the most deprived areas of Scotland significantly higher than the Scottish average.

I recalled I made a short series of programmes for BBC Radio Scotland in 1997 in a series I cheerily called “Dying for Scotland”. In my head I described them as a romp through the mortality statistics of the 20th Century. I have always been fascinated by how short the public memory is for the life we ourselves lived never mind our limited capacity for conceiving the ailments and catastrophes that invaded the homes of our parents and grandparents. The programmes were commissioned for a 15 minute lunchtime slot that existed then. For those with 13 minutes and 43 second to spare the 1997 programme is here:

It was extraordinary to read through the newspaper cuttings of the 1920s, 30s and 40s to read detailed reporting of suicides of a sort limited only to ‘celebrities’ today but which was evidently on a general reporter’s beat then.

My wee programme also showed how easy it is for interesting statistics to lead to interestingly misplaced certainties. Sir John Sibbald delivered a paper on suicide in Scotland to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1902. Drawing on comparative suicide statistics from the Scottish counties and burghs in which the lowest rates were reported from the Highlands and the highest from Kincardineshire, Forfarshire, Midlothian and Linlithgow and Haddington Sir John confidently pronounced that this was evidence that “the Saxon is more likely to take his own life than the Celt.”

By 1955 those particular genetic lines on the graph had crossed. Perhaps Sir John was seduced by the statistics to ask the wrong questions. Or he underestimated the willingness of of some GPs to write suicide – or self murder as it used to be – on the death certificate knowing the effect that would have on the chances of burial in a kirkyard or a payout on a life insurance policy.

Which brings me back to animated debate brought on by Panorama.

The programme’s message was that it is important for men to talk more. Simon Jack’s mother said that they had had a very loving marriage. “I didn’t know all the problems he was having because he didn’t discuss it. I think he thought he’d dug a hole so deep he couldn’t get out of it.”

Reference was made to men’s “emotional illiteracy” and, several times to recent Samaritan’s research which identified their issues of “masculinity”, so often used a term of disdain it is probably time for sociologists to find another word if they want men to engage with it positively.

The last word in the programme went to Jane Powell, founder and Chief Executive of CALM – the Campaign Against Living Miserably – suggesting that men talking more about feelings would help. “And talk is free.”

Most of the social media responses picked on the shocking figure of 100 men a week putting an end to their life. Surely there could be nothing wrong with raising the profile of a phenomenon that reveals such despair among the individuals who gave up their struggle to survive but who also leave hurt and bewildered, and as Simon Jack acknowledged, angry family and friends behind.

However, the message drew a blistering blog attack by Karen Woodall, who works in the field of Parental Alienation. She wrote, “My second reaction was serious concern which grew into anger at the realisation that the sole idea that was being put forward in this documentary was a feminist construct that if men were more like women and talked about their feelings, their despair would not drive them to death. So let’s look at what talking about it does for the men who are most at risk of suicide in the UK. “

She then went on to list an A – Z of institutions, services and attitudes that actively ignore or discourage or even punish men who want to talk about the wrong things or in a way that doesn’t suit the prevailing narrative about relationships.

Comments posted to her blog [] gave specific examples of how an admission of depression had been used against the individuals in a range of situations from family court cases to employment and career progression.

So I went back to Jane Powell to ask for her response. I think it is fair to report that she was pleased with the Panorama for raising the issue of male suicide to millions of people but that her contributions “weren’t everything I would have wanted to say.” She has a lot to say so don’t expect a short phone call.

I suspect she and Karen Woodall have more that unites than divides them.

In the Panorama programme Joe Ferns, Samaritans’ Executive Director of Policy, Research and Development gave the hypothetical example of colleagues coming into work and finding a female colleague in tears at her desk. “Someone would automatically take her off to the toilets and find out what had happened and it would be seen as an opportunity to rally round and help.”

His example rather petered out but Jane Powell finishes the thought rather more robustly. “If people came in and found a male colleague in tears at his desk they’d be embarrassed. They’ll think he’s not fit for work. Send him home. And maybe he’s dangerous. ‘Fuck, he could do anything!’.”

That seems to be a better description of emotional illiteracy among everyone else rather than the individual man. For men to feel freer to speak they must be confident that they won’t be disadvantaged for doing so. Many have painful experience of the opposite.

Jane Powell says, “For the first 5 years of CALM I think most people thought I was an old bag with a bee in her bonnet. I still find it hard to persuade governments or public agencies to step beyond wringing their hands that this is a terrible shame to driving a gender specific strategy that meets men on the journey that they may be taking on the road to despair. We know that a real man hurts, bleeds, feels pain and fucks up. When they’re in distress and feeling trapped by their despair they may drink too much, drive too fast and behave badly. Not always but sometimes. But we also know they write poetry, sing songs and work communicate their feelings in a thousand ways. It’s not a strategy to tell them to behave more like women. We have been looking at the specific needs of women brilliantly for years. Why is there such resistance to doing the same for men?”

Professor Stephen Platt, recently retired, has been the leading figure in suicide research in Scotland for more than 30 years. He appeared in my 1997 programme explaining even then that there were three contributing factors that appeared to have a role in drawing more men towards suicide. They were psychology including the interaction between depression and alcohol-related illness; culture; and social wellbeing which included (un)employment and marriage breakdown.

Choose Life has associated itself with the decline in suicide figures during its first ten years. It had a target of reducing suicide by 20% so 19% is clearly encouraging. Stephen Platt says the development of ‘brief’ primary care programmes treating drug and alcohol abuse and depression has been a factor. But he counsels that there hasn’t been an independent “outcome evaluation” that would change an association to a cause.

Nor does he think there has been any academic research into the kind of actively disincentive factors listed by Karen Woodall and the sense of defeat that may lead to suicide.

To reflect the Panorama pay off I’ll also leave the last word to Jane Powell. “Until we come clean about what the experience of men who take their lives is we won’t convince them that we’re here to help. There’s no point in telling them to talk if there’s no-one to listen or worse tell them that they’re feeling the wrong sort of feelings for us to listen to. The last words of so many is that there’s no place in the world for them and that their friends and family would be better off without them. It’s a deep hole and we need to find all the ways possible to help them out of it, not tell them men should stop digging holes.”

A Death in the Family will be available for a few days more at:

Useful links:





Punishing schedule for Scottish Sentencing Council

The Scottish Sentencing Council is due to be formally constituted in October. As a new feature on the criminal justice landscape, the council was created as part of the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2010. Legislatively speaking, that was hard on the heels of the equivalent body south of the border, the Sentencing Council of England and Wales. Their council was created in 2009 and began work in 2010.

For reasons that are not obvious the Scottish Sentencing Council has been in suspended animation for the best part of five years. Nevertheless it has been recently confirmed that all systems are now go. The council will be chaired by the Lord Justice Clerk, Lord Carloway. According to the statute, he will be joined around the Sentencing Council table by:

Five judges viz a judge of the outer house of the Court of Session or the High Court of Justiciary; one sheriff (not including a sheriff principal); two persons who hold the office of stipendiary magistrate or justice of the peace; and one other judicial member (including a sheriff principal). By my reckoning that means there will be a sheriff principal.

Three lawyers viz one prosecutor; one practising advocate; one practising solicitor.

Three lay members viz one police officer; one person with knowledge of the issues faced by victims of crime; and one other person not qualified for appointment as a judicial or legal member.

The Lord Justice General, Lord Gill, will be responsible for appointing the judicial and legal members of the council. Police Scotland and Victim Support will nominate their members. It looks like one place, the ‘one other person’, will be open to applicants through the public appointments channels.

It seems beyond challenge that the establishment of the council is a good thing. Its statutory objectives are to promote consistency in sentencing practice; assist the development of policy in relation to sentencing; and promote greater awareness and understanding of sentencing policy and practice. Who could be against any of those?

Delivering the Howard League Scotland lecture at Edinburgh University last October, Lord Carloway predicted that the result of the imminent council’s labours could be to render obsolete existing sentencing jurisprudence ‘such as it is’ – four of the most chilling words I’ve heard from a senior judge. And anything the council can do by way of explanation will be welcome if it helps dissipate the febrile atmosphere around sentencing in which it has become practice for news media to invite victims of crime or their families to explain on the steps of the court how outraged they are at the inadequacy of the sentence that has just been handed down in their specific case.

The direct victims and their families are entitled to feel what they do. I have less sympathy for the opportunism of other campaigns in exploiting the victims and monstering convicted persons for their own ends. In his recent book, ‘So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed’, Jon Ronson reminds us that very few of us are evil 24 hours a day, every day, but treating us as if we are and as if we are therefore beyond humanity rarely leads to a positive outcome.

Interestingly, when the legislation setting up the Scottish Sentencing Council was first passed in 2010, I interviewed the chairman of the English Council, a then little-known judge called Lord Justice Leveson, for a steer on what to expect. He drew my attention to an interactive exercise called ‘You be the judge’ which you can still find at Lord Justice Leveson said: ‘We know that, if asked at a general level, public confidence about sentencing is low and the general assumption is that it is too lenient. However we have taken “You be the Judge” to court open days in different parts of the country. Members of the public can also try it online. It has been remarkable that when people get a chance to view the details of a prosecution and take all the facts into account the sentence that they suggest generally undershoots what the judge on the bench actually decided. I think we all have a responsibility to explain more about what we do and why we do it’.

There are differences between the councils on either side of the border. The fundamental difference of principle is that the English Sentencing Council does its research and analysis, thinks through the resource implications and publishes its guidelines. It has been busy. Its 2013-14 corporate report shows guidelines on six distinct areas of law completed or under way – including, last month, its second report in three years on sentencing related to dangerous dogs after the legislators defined new offences.

There will be an intermediary stage in Scotland. The Scottish Sentencing Council will make its recommendations to the Lord Justice General who will accept them all, or in part or not at all. The E&W corporate report throws up another difference in practice if not in principle. Its budget is just over £1.5m. The Scottish Government’s financial memorandum to the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Bill 2010 in which the Scottish Sentencing Council is founded estimated the set-up costs for the Scottish Sentencing Council at £450,000 and ongoing costs at £1.1m.

The indecorously described ‘headcount’ in England and Wales stands at 17.7 full time equivalent posts. I was advised that staffing and administrative support for the Scottish Council would be supplied by the Scottish Court Service. Given that the Scottish Council is expected to be up by October and active by November, I asked the Scottish Court Service what staffing it had budgeted to provide but was advised this was a matter for the Sentencing Council and that staffing is yet to be settled. As is the per diem rate for members. No doubt that will all be settled in due course.

The eternal optimist in me has hopes that the council and its urging of consistency, if not uniformity, will have a positive contribution to make. The division of labour in recent years seems to have established that Lord Gill as Lord Justice General and Lord President of the Court of Session has been sorting out the organisation of the courts with the aim of fitting them for life in the 21st century. Whether it was intended this way or not, Lord Carloway has been addressing issues around what happens within the courts. Proposals for the abolition of corroboration (and news from the expert committee set up to review that can’t be far away) and admissibility of new forms of evidence in criminal cases bear his stamp. I think it is fair to say that both are impatient with the concept of ‘established practice’ as a guide to future justice.

Lord Carloway trailed the view he will take from the chair of the Sentencing Council in that lecture to Howard League Scotland. The full title was, ‘The Purpose of Sentencing – From Beccaria to the OLR [Order for Lifelong Restriction] and Beyond’. The ‘Beccaria’ of his title was an Italian whose ‘Treatise on Crimes and Punishment’, published in 1764, was pioneering in arguing against the use of physical punishment and torture and in favour of punishments that would ‘make the strongest and most lasting impressions on the minds of others, with the least torment to the body of the criminal’.

Lord Carloway indicated that the Scottish Sentencing Council would be less definitive than its southern neighbour – less intent on drawing up a grid that could be superimposed on each case before any judge. He concluded: ‘Perhaps the best thing that could happen is that a new Beccaria will emerge, who could guide us all forward towards the promised land. That country may be one in which, whilst the offender who is assessed as a continuing danger to the public should be subject to some relatively restrictive regime of incarceration and/or intense supervision in the community, all others should be paying back to, and learning in, the community and not removed from it and put behind the walls and barbed wire that future generations may regard, as we now do the practices prevalent in Beccaria’s day, as barbaric’.

I wish the Scottish Sentencing Council the best of luck when ‘death by careless driving’ reaches the top of its to-do-list.