Spotlight on: Men’s Suicide Rates

This page is a resource on suicide as a gender issue for men. It includes first some statistics demonstrating the concerning fact that men are a lot more likely to kill themselves, and second some possible explanations for why that’s the case, including in the context of the “gender paradox of suicide” where men kill themselves much more but women consider and attempt it somewhat more.

If somehow you’ve reached this as someone considering suicide rather than just someone interested in gender issues, I’d suggest looking at an actual resource dedicated to someone in your situation, like the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) in the United Kingdom.

Sections:

  1. Statistics on Suicidal Behaviours
  2. Explanations

(Length: 1,500 words.)

1. Statistics on Suicidal Behaviours

1.1 Fatal Suicidal Behaviours (Completed Suicide)

Men are more likely to kill themselves, and the difference is quite stark.

  • In the United States, men are 3.5× more likely to commit suicide.
  • In the United Kingdom, men are 3.5× more likely to commit suicide.
  • In Canada, men are 3.4× more likely to commit suicide.
    • Data from 2009 (“Suicide rates: An overview” from Statistics Canada). 2,989 men and 901 women committed suicide that year, a rate of 17.9 for men and 5.3 for women.
  • In Australia, men are 3.1× more likely to commit suicide.
    • Data from the period of 2009-2013 (Table 5 of “Suicide by Age” from the Australian Bureau of Statistics). 9,321 men and 2,985 women committed suicide in that span, a rate of 16.8 for men and 5.3 for women.
  • In Ireland, men are 4.8× more likely to commit suicide.
    • Data from 2011 (“Suicide Statistics” from the Central Statistics Office). 458 men and 96 women committed suicide that year.

Although the focus of this page is on the Western world (particularly Anglosphere countries), see here for a comprehensive map of the ratio of male to female suicides around the world (from 2004). Almost all countries have a ratio of 1 or higher (more male suicides), with especially high ratios (around 6) in Russia, Mexico, and Saudi Arabia. Among Western countries, the lowest ratios (under 2.5) are found in Norway, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. Some countries in South Asia, the Middle East, and Northern Africa—including India, Iran, Egypt, and Turkey—have ratios under 2. The few countries with ratios under 1 (more female suicides) include China, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

1.2 Non-Fatal Suicidal Behaviours (Suicidal Thoughts & Attempted Suicide)

In contrast to fatal suicide behaviours being more common in men, there’s evidence that non-fatal suicidal behaviours are more common in women (although the difference doesn’t seem to be as large or as consistent).

A 2007 survey from England found that 19.2% of women and 14.0% of men had suicidal thoughts at some point in their lives, and that 6.9% of women and 4.3% of men had attempted suicide in their lives (§4.3.1 in “Adult psychiatric morbidity in England, 2007: Results of a household survey” for The NHS Information Centre for health and social care).

A look at hospital records in Canada in 1998 found that there were 1.5× more women than men hospitalized for attempted suicide: a rate of 108 compared to 70, per 100,000 population (“Suicide deaths and suicide attempts” by Stéphanie Langlois and Peter Morrison for Statistics Canada).

However, a 2011 survey from the United States found women more likely to have suicidal thoughts but no more likely to engage in suicide planning or a suicide attempt than men (“Suicidal Thoughts and Behaviors Among Adults Aged ≥18 Years — United States, 2008-2009”).

2. Explanations

Women more often attempt or consider suicide, but far more men end up dead. Why? The simple answer is that men tend to use more lethal methods. In Canada for example, the most common method for women is poisoning (42%), while for men it’s hanging (46%). Men also use firearms at a greater rate (20% compared to 3%). But that’s a shallow answer. Why do men and women use different methods?

The 2015 article “Why are men more likely than women to take their own lives?” in The Guardian mentions three possibilities supported by some evidence:

  1. Men are more intent on dying. A 2005 study of patients admitted to the hospital in Oxford after an episode of self-harm found significantly higher levels of suicidal intent in men.
  2. Men are more impulsive. This could leave them vulnerable to “rash, spur-of-the-moment suicidal behaviour”. Alcohol contributes here, as men are more likely to have drunk alcohol in the hours before a suicide.
  3. Women care more about the appearance of their dead body, which puts restrictions on their methods. One study found that women who use firearms are less likely to shoot themselves in the face than men.

The 2011 article “The silent epidemic of male suicide” (2011) in the British Columbia Medical Journal mentions many of the same possibilities: men are more hopeless and resolved to die, more likely to be intoxicated, and less averse to disfigurement. Those last two factors are more straight-forward (less cultural emphasis on men’s beauty, and generally higher rates of substance abuse among men), but why might men be more intent on dying, if indeed it is the case? (Some studies have found it, including the 2005 Oxford study linked in The Guardian article, and the 2006 paper “Prevalence of and Risk Factors for Suicide Attempts Versus Suicide Gestures” in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology. But some studies haven’t, like the 2000 paper “Method choice, intent, and gender in completed suicide” in Suicide and Life Threatening Behavior.)

For some factors that might explain why men who attempt suicide might be more intent on dying, let’s look at report “Men, suicide and society: Why disadvantaged men in mid-life die by suicide” from Samaritans (a UK charity). There’s a clear pattern of social, romantic, and familial relationships (or a lack thereof) being important factors behind men’s suicide rate: the article notes that relationship breakdown is more likely to lead men than women to suicide, that men are more likely to be separated from their children (which contributes to many men’s despair and suicide), and that “[w]omen maintain close same-sex relationships across their lives, but men’s peer relationships drop away after the age of 30”. Another important factor is (un)employment. Men tend to tie their identity and their pride to having a job and being able to provide for their family; losing a job can feel especially shameful or defeating as a man, and the decline of traditionally male types of employment (like manufacturing) puts many men in that situation. There’s a “perfect storm” of these social and employment issues for middle-aged working class men, many of whom have (as the report describes) “seen their jobs, relationships and identity blown apart”, putting them at special risk for hopelessness and suicide.

Employment and social factors aren’t necessarily separate. Robert Whitley, researcher at McGill University, expands here on occupational stress:

Firstly, suicide in men may be linked to occupational stress. Men continue to make up the overwhelming proportion of people working in the most dangerous and dirty occupations. These include mining, fishing, forestry, oil/gas, construction, law enforcement and the military. Many of these jobs are subject to the whims of the seasonal and economic cycle, with periods of intense work followed by periods of unemployment. The very nature of these jobs can further expose workers to social isolation, separation from family, physical risk, injury and violence. This in turn can lead to higher rates of disability, substance use and post-traumatic stress disorder, all proven predictors of suicide.

The idea that women who attempt suicide might be less intent on dying might sound strange. Why would anyone, man or woman, attempt suicide if they don’t actually want to die? But according to the book Psychiatric Nursing: Contemporary Practice (page 257), most suicidal people are undecided about living or dying. One survey of people who’d attempted suicide found that two-thirds had only low or moderate intent of actually killing themselves. And George E. Murphy (emeritus professor of psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis) says that most of the time an attempted suicide is actually an attempt to dramatically bring attention to the problem in the person’s life: a “cry for help” rather than a desire to die. (This is not to dismiss the pain of people who survive, intentionally or not—a “cry for help” is still serious.)

Men might be more often past the stage where they want to make a cry for help, or they might not feel comfortable making a cry for help, or they might not think that a cry for help will be effective. From WikiGender: “Greater social stigma against male depression and a lack of social networks of support and help with depression are often identified as key reasons for men’s disproportionately higher level of suicides, since suicide as a ‘cry for help’ is not seen by men as an equally viable option.”

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