Reality and the Ideal: How the space in between contributes to the prevalence suicide in men

The article “Medical Costs and Productivity Losses Due to Interpersonal and Self-Directed Violence in the United States” states that the most effective way to reduce the economic burden associated with violence-related injuries is to prevent firearm-related homicides and suicide among adolescent and young adult males. Injuries among men cause higher individual productivity losses (though the article concedes that this assessment may not be entirely accurate, as the value of homemaking, a major economic contribution by women, has not been properly estimated), but this recommendation is motivated by more than economic pragmatism about the economic value of individual. The American Journal of Preventive Medicine’s research has shown that rates of fatal self-injury among men are indisputably higher than those among women. While the overall rate of self-inflicted injury was higher  for females than males, fatal self-injury rates were three times higher for men. The article did not examine the reasoning behind this, and I was prompted to find out more about this glaring disparities along gender lines.

I found particularly compelling the commissioned research of Samaritans, a registered charity aimed at providing emotional support to distressed individuals in the UK and Ireland. They seek to go beyond the existing body of suicide research and the statistics, to extend suicide prevention beyond it focus on individual mental health problems to understand the social and cultural context in which people choose to take their own life. The key observation is that there is a large gap between the modern reality of life for men and the masculine ideal.  Such research  supports a key feminist tenet: rigid gender roles are damaging for everyone.

An expectation for men to be bread winners charges them with responsibility for economic hardship, though key factors such as national economic downturns are actually out of their control. Men are largely raised without sufficient emphasis on social and emotional skills, and often have more limited social support networks (resulting from companionship building that is more dependent on activity rather than verbal interaction). Men tend therefore to rely more heavily on their relationship partners for emotional support. The suffering that results from such relationships breaking down is more likely to lead men, rather than women, to suicide.

The impact of these processes has not been uniform across society; they pose challenges in particular to the group of men currently in mid-life, and these challenges are exacerbated when men occupy low socio-economic positions. Rates of suicide are particularly high among middle-aged men (and women, for that matter).  Such baby boomers are what Samaritans describes as a “buffer” generation. From childhood, these men were presented not with healthy emotional coping skills but with a “strong and silent” archetype. Today, we are moving, I would argue positively, toward a society in which the taboo on emotionality in men and mental health issues for all is slowly but surely being overcome. These contradicting concepts of masculinity are a potentially potent source of confusion and anxiety for men.

For those who have discounted the damaging effects of strict gender roles and societal expectations on the holistic health of individuals, I hope this research will raise the following questions: How do we set impossible standards for the performance of gender? How do we teach, or not teach, individuals to cope with their inevitable failure to reach them?

Click to access Men%20and%20Suicide%20Research%20Report%20210912.pdf

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