By Glen Poole, Stop Male Suicide
Every day in Australia, eight people will die by suicide and six of them will be men. So why are men three times more likely to take their own lives than women?
One of the most common complaints about men in relationships, is that when women want to talk about problems, men try to fix them.
If men are more inclined to “fix things” than “talk about things”, then one way to view male suicide is as a solution-based behaviour. It seems that when men take their lives, they have reached a point where they genuinely believe that suicide is the best possible solution to the problems they are facing.
The pathway to suicide takes men from having problems, to trying to fix problems, to trying to cope with problems, to seeing suicide as a solution to their problems.
THE PROBLEMS THAT CAN LEAD MEN TO SUICIDE
The problems that lead men to suicide arise in one of four fundamental structures that shape us as human beings: our society; our culture; our psychology and our biology/behaviour.
When men face problems they can neither fix, nor cope with, their risk of suicide rises.
The four most common problems that put men on the path to suicide are:
- relationship separation
- mood disorders
- Alcohol/drug abuse.
Men who aren’t in work are five times more likely to suicide than men with jobs and 26 times more likely to suicide than women who work. Around half of all male suicides are in men who are either unemployed or economically inactive for reasons such as having a long-term illness, being retired or being a full-time parent or carer.
In terms of relationships, around one in four men who suicide will be separated, an issue that is four times more likely to be linked to male suicide than female suicide.
Alcohol abuse is thought to contribute to as many as seven out of ten suicides in men and has been linked to seven times more male suicides than female suicides.
In terms of mood disorders like depression, men are more likely than women to experience three classes of mental health issues at the same time. People with three classes of mental health disorder are nearly 50 times more likely to be suicidal than people with no disorders.
HIGH RISK GROUPS
While men of all backgrounds are more likely to suicide than women of the same background, it is the men who don’t conform with the social norms of being mentally well, heterosexual, non-indigenous, in a stable relationship and a secure job, who are most at risk.
Men in high risks groups are more likely to suicide, particularly when faced with other factors such as unemployment, alcohol abuse, relationship separation and mood disorders.
MEN’S HELP-SEEKING BEHAVIOUR
The most popular explanation given for male suicide tends to be that men don’t get help.
There is no doubt that if men don’t get help with the types of problems that can put them on the path to suicide, then their risk of male suicide will increase. When we study men’s help-seeking behaviour more closely we discover that there are four key factors that influence whether a man will get help or not:
- Are there systems in place to empower men like me with problems like this?
- Do the communities I belong to, support men like me, getting help with problems like this?
- Do my beliefs about masculinity help me or hinder me?
- Is the potential gain of getting help, greater than the potential pain, risk or loss?
THE ROLE OF MASCULINITY
Like men’s help-seeking behaviour, men’s masculine beliefs are sometimes held responsible for the high male suicide rate. For example, the belief that men should be “self reliant” has been linked to male suicidality. So how do we help a suicidal man who believes that men should be self reliant? Do we see his need to be self reliant as a strength and try and point him to forms of self help he can rely on at times of need? Or do we challenge his masculine beliefs about self reliance and encourage him to “rely on” and get help from others?
In practice, many men are more likely to get help and deal with the problems they face when they are able to develop or build on traditional masculine strengths for example:
“I’m getting back in control of my life“
“I’m sorting out my problems for the sake of my family”
“I’m going to find the strength to fight this problem”
For some men, “getting in touch with their feminine side” or “reconstructing their masculinity” may promote help-seeking behaviours, for example:
“Opening up and letting people know I’m not okay”,
“Giving up trying to deal with his on my own and reaching out and getting help”
For other men, reframing feminine qualities as masculine strengths may be the way forward:
“It takes real strength for a man to open up and talk about his feelings”
“I can only look out for my family, if I take good care of myself”.
WOMEN HAVE PROBLEMS AND MEN ARE PROBLEMS
Many men who have survived suicide attempts say that when they look back, it wasn’t their life they wanted to end, but the pain they were feeling. At a cultural level, our shared views about men and masculinity may make us less likely to acknowledge the problems that can lead men to suicide or understand the pain that suicidal men feel.
In a world where all things masculine are framed as strong, assertive and independent (and all things feminine are seen as vulnerable, passive and intimately connected), the dominant public story about gender issues is that “women HAVE problems and men ARE problems”.
One research project which explored men’s “right to feel and express pain” and examined whether people think “men suffer on the inside as much as women” found lower male suicide rates in areas where people had positive attitudes towards men expressing pain.
While there are a limited number of initiatives specifically designed to help men, those that exist and are successful at engaging with men, share a number of common characteristics. What such projects demonstrate is that when services are shaped to respond to men’s needs, men will get help and support with the problems that can lead them to suicide.
For both men and women, our ability to cope with problems is shaped by our childhood experiences. At an individual level, a lack of emotional resilience and an increased risk of suicide in adult life, is often linked to early childhood traumas such as violence and abuse. More broadly, research suggests that boys are less emotionally resilient than girls on average, so men’s ability (or inability) appears to be deeply rooted in childhood.
Male suicide is a solution-based behaviour that some men turn to in response to problems like unemployment, relationship separation, alcohol abuse and mental health issues.
Helping men to either “fix” or cope with the problems that are known to increase their risk of suicide can help prevent male suicide. Men are more likely to get help from services that are designed and delivered in a “male-friendly” way.
Men at risk of suicide may avoid or express their distress in unhealthy ways such as substance abuse, risky behaviour, aggression and violence. Healthy behaviours that may help men avoid or express their distress can include distraction activities, spending time with others and talking to people they trust.
Masculinity can also play a role in promoting or preventing help-seeking and healthy coping in men. While some men may prefer interventions that actively build on traditional masculine strengths, others may value approaches that help men to redefine their masculine identity.