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The Silent Crisis of Male Suicide

An exploration of factors contributing to the high rate of male suicide.

Key points

  • Men account for over 75 percent of suicides, and the rate of male suicide has risen in recent decades.
  • The statistics suggest that existing approaches to male suicide are deficient.
  • New, male-friendly suicide prevention measures must be adopted to help halt the crisis.
Source: panitanphoto/Shutterstock

September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, a chance to reflect on the tragic loss of life associated with suicidal deaths. Men account for the vast majority of completed suicides across the world. In Europe, men account for around 80 percent of completed suicides, while in the Americas men account for around 75 percent of completed suicides.

In the United States, around 35,000 men die by suicide each year, which means around one every 15 minutes. In Canada, approximately 3,000 men die by suicide per year, which translates to over 50 per week. This has led Professor Dan Bilsker, of Canada's Simon Fraser University, to declare that we are in the midst of a “silent epidemic of male suicide."

Rising Rates

Worryingly, the rate of male suicide is increasing, after a period of declining rates. For example, a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report states that male suicide increased by around 2 percent per year from 2006 to 2017, reflecting a 26 percent increase in male suicides since 1999.

But this same report notes that age-adjusted male suicide rates in the U.S. showed a period of slight decline from the mid-1980s to 2006. The recent rising rates suggest that existing approaches to suicide prevention may be missing the mark.

Indeed, three of the core arguments of my new book Men’s Issues and Men’s Mental Health (Springer, 2021) are that existing approaches to male suicide prevention (and men’s mental health per se) inadequately address the issue, as they:

  1. Too narrowly focus on the singular concept of masculinity, lacking any peripheral vision to examine important aspects of adverse social context experienced by many men.
  2. Sometimes take an unhelpful blaming and shaming accusatory approach by suggesting that men's mental health woes are due to alleged male deficits such as stubbornness.
  3. Insufficiently adopt a male-sensitive and male-friendly "strengths-based approach" in the provision of mental health services that build on male proclivities and preferences.

A Renewed Approach

A better way to understand and prevent male suicide involves a focus on the social context of men's lives. Such an approach means examining the relationship between various social factors and suicide, using the results to build targeted and tailored male-friendly programs.

Indeed, analysis reveals that certain sub-groups of men are at particular risk of suicide. This includes (i) divorced men; (ii) military veterans; (iii) unemployed men; (iv) Aboriginal men; and (v) men with mental illness.

Do the men in the above groups share a common experience? To a greater or lesser extent, men in these groups often experience high levels of isolation, financial strain, social stigma, stereotyping, and suspicion from wider society. This may contribute to a lack of public empathy for their plight, meaning few targeted safety nets or supports.

Social Alienation

A common experience of men in these groups may be perceived or real rejection from mainstream society, leading to a strong sense of social alienation, characterized by a lowered sense of meaning and purpose in life, which can weaken primary reasons for living.

For example, the social integration of adult men in Western countries is typically provided by meaningful participation in (i) a nuclear family; and (ii) the workforce. Thus, the dissolution of a nuclear family or the loss of employment can have a particularly nefarious effect on men's mental health, especially as few tailored services target such men.

Similarly, stigmatizing stereotypes targeted at groups such as veterans, men with mental illness, and Aboriginal men may mean a lack of employment or dating opportunities in the first place, thus contributing to a lack of social integration and ongoing marginalization.

Implications for Prevention

It is important to take a multi-pronged approach to the prevention of male suicide. First, there is a need for tailored male-sensitive supports for men undergoing difficult transitions such as divorce or job loss, as these transitions negatively affect men's mental health.

Second, a renewed approach must include targeted and culturally appropriate supports for vulnerable men from specific sub-cultures, such as Aboriginal men and veterans, which can include peer support and spiritually-informed care.

Third, the official mental health system undoubtedly has a role to play, but locally grounded community-driven programs must also be tasked to help vulnerable men, especially as research indicates that men often prefer such grassroots programs and informal spaces.

This can include local peer support groups, faith-based organizations, or other non-profits. Such organizations are well placed to address the loneliness, social alienation, and diminished sense of meaning and purpose in life that is often implicated in male suicide.

All of this may help address the silent crisis of male suicide.

If you or someone you love is contemplating suicide, seek help immediately. For help 24/7 contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK, or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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