This week, a popular, successful young man beginning his senior year at a small liberal arts college in the Northeast left campus during one of the first days of the new semester after talking cheerfully with friends and participating in activities for new students. The next morning he was found dead, far away from home and campus. Next to him, the police told reporters, they found a suicide note. It was a "first" for the college, but it is a well-known phenomenon around the country.
Suicides among young males are four times more common than among young female, and they are occurring among ever younger males, some in their early teens. Little is understood about what motivates boys and young men to take their lives in such numbers. Of as great concern is another fact: little effort has been made to understand the trend.
The topic is at the top of the agenda of items for consideration at university and college centers for men. It now becomes another reason for stressing the need for such places on campuses. Among other topics at such centers, which are growing in number, are the relationship between fathers and sons, in particular the impact on young males of not having had a father during boyhood. Other common topics are body image and relationships with women—and, perhaps most to the point here, their perception of how they are seen as males in contemporary culture.
The psychology of male suicide is not at all well understood, but since late adolescence is a time of identity consolidation, it is thought that being unable to answer the question "Who am I, really?" is a critical feature among college age men who consider suicide. It is also known that young males are more impulsive than females and often act without giving the consequences of their acts much thought. This might include taking a drastic decision to leave this world.
In more than 40 years of college-level teaching, I have observed thousands of young men change remarkably, especially during the last two college years. Generally on a somewhat later timetable that female peers, many undergo significant transformations only during the junior and senior years. They change in appearance, revise their persona, and perhaps for the first time make even a preliminary decision about what they want to study—and this with only a year remaining. Their female peers have done this much earlier. Some find that they need a fifth year to finally put their intellectual, emotional, and even pre-vocational or pre-professional house in order.
Many other young men have still not decided what they want to do by the time they graduate. They return home to live with their parents—more than ever before. By contrast, most college women know what they want to do by commencement and head into further study, if they have decided to continue with their education, into a career, or into a serious relationship that might lead to parenting children.
Just what prompts a young man to end his young life at a time when his prospects might be expected to be brightest is baffling—unless we consider that they are facing a world that may seem not to have a place for them. And they are keenly aware of this. And they are hurt by it. Perhaps just having gotten over the fact that they are not especially welcome on college campuses -- something I have discussed in an earlier contribution—they now face another world, the real world, that also has little good to say about men. They have all read in popular weeklies or on the internet about "the end of men" or heard the question "Are men necessary?"
As I have reported here before, the numbers of males attending college is at an all time low (about 37% nationally) in proportion to their female peers. This trend has been of concern to admissions officers for twenty years. The reasons are not clear, but they include a sense of not being welcome. But what about a young man who is among that group who matriculated, has found a place for himself on a university campus in a major he enjoys, has been engaged in campus life, and has done well academically? We must suppose that another factor is at work when he leaves in all behind on a warm summer day.
Perhaps the most vexing issue is that colleges and universities have not responded seriously to the fact—not a guess, not a hunch—the fact that the rate of young male suicides is so much greater than that of females during the college years. Why this has not become a topic for study and simple human concern is troubling.
I am convinced that men's centers on college campuses by their very presence raise awareness of the challenges young men face—not only at institutions of higher learning but in contemporary culture as a whole. As a footnote to the incident mentioned at the beginning of this contribution, on hearing about that young man's suicide, an anonymous donor made a gift of $800 to the center to support its work in trying to understand, among other matters, why so many young men are ending their lives.
Here I bring issues of importance to discussion and leave it to others to advocate for policy change. In this case, I raise a question I believe is worth investigating:
Why are so many more young men taking their lives—even young men with the special advantage of being able to afford to attend university—and at just that moment when they have finally negotiated some of life's most demanding puzzles: Who am I? What do I want to do? Surely, this question deserves eveyone's thoughtful consideration.