The Gender Inequality Of Suicide
By Alice G. Walton
Though mental health issues are less taboo than they were in the past, and certainly more people are getting treated for them (at least pharmaceutically), the suicide rate is still high – especially for men. The World Health Organization estimates that about one million people take their own lives each year, and this is not counting those who attempt it but are not “successful.” In just about every country, men commit suicide more frequently than women, which is intriguing since women typically have higher (at least, reported) rates of mental health disorders like depression. A new study looked at the factors that might explain why certain groups of men are so much more likely than women to take their own lives.
Certainly suicide is linked to mental health problems like depression and anxiety – it almost has to occur in their presence – but there are other factors involved. And it is these external factors that, according to the researchers, need some attention. The new study was commissioned by the organization Samaritans, and carried out by a team of researchers in Great Britain.
One of the risk factors for suicide in men seems to be middle age. Historically, younger men were at greater risk than older ones, but this has changed in recent decades. Now, middle-aged men experience the lowest levels of well-being and the highest suicide rates (especially if they are of lower socioeconomic class; more on this later). In fact, well-being for both sexes follows a U-shaped curve, with well-being bottoming out in the middle years.
For middle-aged men today, being in between two very different generations (“the prewar ‘silent’ and the post-war ‘me’ generation”) may make them feel more stuck. “Men currently in their mid-years are the ‘buffer’ generation – caught between the traditional silent, strong, austere masculinity of their fathers and the more progressive, open and individualistic generation of their sons. They do not know which of these ways of life and masculine cultures to follow.”
Middle age is also the time when the importance of long-term life decisions is clear: Making changes can come with a big cost, both financially and personally/socially, since doing so could lead to job loss, financial uncertainty, or on the personal front, a breakdown in marriage. Feeling boxed in could seriously compromise well-being.
The study found that the suicide rate was ten times higher in men of lower socioeconomic status than in affluent men. The link between suicide and unemployment has been known for some time, but the authors discuss the reasons why, beyond losing a job, socioeconomic class might affect suicide risk. One factor is the increasing “‘feminisation’ of employment (shift towards a more service-oriented economy),” which may cause men to feel like they have less room in the professional world. The authors write that “men in lower socioeconomic groups now have less access to jobs that allow for the expression of working-class masculinity, and have thus lost a source of masculine identity and ‘pride.’” Yet losing a job may still make men feel like a “double failure, since they are unable to meet two central demands of the masculine role: being employed; and ‘providing’ for the family.”
Another interesting finding is that while divorce and separation are linked to suicide risk in both sexes, divorced/separated men seem particularly vulnerable to suicidal “ideation” (thoughts and planning) and to suicide itself. This may make sense, since it’s been shown that men derive more mental and physical health benefits from marriage than do women (although it’s good for both sexes) – so the breakdown of a marriage could lead to more detrimental outcomes for men. That said, there’s still a lot of pressure on men to fill out the masculine husband role, whatever socioeconomic class one is in, and the reality is that today this classic role may be somewhat unrealistic. “There is a large and unbridgeable gap between the culturally authorised idea of ‘hegemonic masculinity’ and the reality of everyday survival for men in crisis,” write the authors. One way of taking back one’s own masculinity, they suggest, is to take one’s own life.
The reality is that there is a constellation of variables that all interplay, and can compound one another. Men of lower socioeconomic status may, for example, feel the breakdown of a relationship more, and conversely, financial problems can contribute to marital problems and pressures. When things break down for men, they really break down. The authors point out that there is too little known about the actual “psychological routes” to suicide for men – that is, once men are feeling the fallout of financial, professional, or personal problems, why do these problems end in suicide more frequently than women?
Part of it may be that men actually have a higher threshold for pain, which could, counterintuitively, lead to a greater risk for suicide, in volcano-like fashion. They may also may poorer decisions when under stress – and men who are unemployed may not come up with effective solutions to personal problems as well as their employed counterparts.
How to reduce the risk of suicides in middle-aged men (or any other demographic) is a question to which there aren’t many answers. The authors of the new study suggest one way may be to develop effective interventions for young men and boys at risk, since many of the patterns leading to suicide in middle age may begin during youth.
“It’s not acceptable for people in lower socioeconomic positions to be at so much higher risk than men in higher socioeconomic positions,” study author Stephen Platt told the Telegraph. “And we need that understanding to be very much a part of suicide prevention strategies and action and local and national level – and up to now, it’s not been.”