The biggest killer of men under the age of 45 is suicide. Men are three times more likely to commit suicide than women. Why is this?
The simple answer, and probably the most truthful answer, is that we don’t know. But a lot of research suggests it is to do with dominant models of masculinity. To oversimplify, when men are ‘dumped’ – and there is evidence that broken relationships are a significant risk factor – then suicide might be a result of their masculine pride being hurt. In other words, men kill themselves because they are men.
A small set of research suggests that suicide is more accessible for men. A colleague of mine carried out some qualitative research, speaking to men and women, in this area. Women spoke about suicide in terms of a last resort. With men it was different. When talking about problems in their lives and ways in which they could make things better, they would say: “Well, I could do this, this or this, or I could kill myself”. For women suicide is something extraordinary, something that is way beyond normal life. For men it is much more accessible.
In suicide notes, men tend to not call suicide ‘suicide’. They distance themselves from that word. They do ‘it’; they do ‘the act’. Which might suggest that by virtue of not calling it suicide, it might actually be easier for them. On the other hand, when they talk about the decisions in their notes they do so very openly. Which is quite bewildering. But you could argue that this is what makes suicide more accessible.
I would not want for one second to say that this is the reason for high rates of male suicide. I suspect we might never know a fundamental reason. But in the literature these are the kind of things people are talking about.
Can we do anything to prevent the rates increasing? There are plenty of campaigns that target men and you’ll often hear the phrase “It’s OK to talk”. Well, if it was OK to talk, everyone would be talking. Clearly it’s not, and more is needed to overcome the stigma of suicide. I think it’s fair to say that our prevention strategies do not target men effectively.
If you think about the pressures that men are under – to be master of the universe, Jack the Lad and also be a new man – then these are unlikely to change. Society’s failure to ease these pressures will probably mean that we will continue to see more men than women killing themselves.