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Daniel Freeman, Ph.D. and Jason Freeman

Why Are Men More Likely Than Women To Take Their Own Lives?

Suicide prevention strategies must take on board striking gender differences

Photo: Sander van der Wel

A staggering 38,000 people in the US took their lives in 2010. It’s a public health catastrophe, and one that must be urgently addressed. But a concerted effort to prevent people from taking their own lives will be more effective if we understand why suicide is a particularly male problem.

It’s known as the “gender paradox of suicidal behaviour”. Research suggests that women are especially prone to psychological problems such as depression, which almost always precede suicide. In western societies, overall rates of mental health disorders tend to be around 20-40% higher for women than for men.

Given the unequal burden of distress implied by these figures, it is hardly surprising that women are more likely to experience suicidal thoughts. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 3.9% of women had considered taking their own life in the previous 12 months, compared to 3.5% of men. The Adult Psychiatric Morbidity in England 2007 survey found that 19% of women had considered taking their own life. For men the figure was 14%.

Women aren’t simply more likely to think about suicide. UK data shows that they are more likely actually to attempt suicide: 7% of women and 4% of men had attempted suicide at some point in their lives. In the US, the rates are about equal for men and women, though this in itself is a puzzle when we consider the gender imbalance in suicide rates.

Because of the many thousands of people in the US who took their own lives in 2010, 79% were men. In the UK more than three quarters of the 5,981 deaths by suicide in the UK in 2012 involved males. (These are startling figures in their own right, but it is also worth remembering just how devastating the effects of a death by suicide can be for loved ones left behind. Studies have shown, for example, an increased risk of subsequent suicide in partners, increased likelihood of admission to psychiatric care for parents, increased risk of suicide in mothers bereaved by an adult child’s suicide, and increased risk of depression in offspring bereaved by the suicide of a parent.)

So if women are more likely to suffer from psychological problems, to experience suicidal thoughts and—at least in some countries—attempt suicide, how do we explain why men are more likely to die by suicide?

It’s principally a question of method. Women who attempt suicide tend to use nonviolent means, such as overdosing. Men often use firearms or hanging, which are more likely to result in death.

In the US, 56% of male suicides involved firearms, with poisoning (which includes overdoses) the most common method for females (37.4%). A similar pattern has been identified in the UK, where 58% of male suicides involved hanging, strangulation or suffocation, compared to 36% for females. Poisoning was used by 43% of female suicides in the UK, compared with 20% of males.

Less is known about the choice of methods in attempted suicides that don’t lead to a fatality. A European study of over 15,000 people receiving treatment after an attempt did find that men were more likely than women to have used violent methods, but the difference was less pronounced.

Why do methods of suicide differ by gender? One theory is that men are more intent on dying. Whether this is true remains to be proven, but there is some evidence to back up the idea. For example, one study of 4,415 patients admitted to hospital in Oxford following an episode of self-harm found that men reported significantly higher levels of suicidal intent than women.

Another hypothesis focuses on impulsivity—the tendency to act without properly thinking through the consequences. Men are, on the whole, more likely to be impulsive than women. Perhaps this leaves them vulnerable to rash, spur-of-the-moment suicidal behaviour.

Not all suicides are impulsive, of course, and even for those that are, the evidence is mixed: some studies have reported that men are more susceptible to impulsive suicidal acts; others have found no such thing. What we do know is that alcohol increases impulsivity, and that there’s a clear link between alcohol use and suicide. Studies have found that men are more likely than women to have drunk alcohol in the hours before a suicide attempt, and that alcohol problems are more common in men who die by suicide than in women.

The third theory is that, even in their choice of suicide method, males and females act out culturally prescribed gender roles. Thus women will opt for methods that preserve their appearance, and avoid those that cause facial disfigurement. Again, the evidence is patchy. But a study of 621 completed suicides in Ohio found that, though firearms were the most common method used by both sexes, women were less likely to shoot themselves in the head.

Clearly much work needs to be done before we arrive at a reliable picture of what’s going on here. But it is striking that suicide, like mental health in general, is a gendered issue—it sometimes affects men and women in radically different ways. That’s a lesson we need to take on board in research, clinical care and prevention efforts alike.

Follow @ProfDFreeman and @JasonFreeman100 on Twitter.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline on 1 800 273 8255. In the UK the Samaritans 24-hour helpline is 08457 90 90 90. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14.

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About the Author

Daniel Freeman, Ph.D., is a professor of clinical psychology. Jason Freeman is a writer specialising in psychology.