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Suicide Rate Men
The suicide rate for young men is much higher than for young women in western developed countries. Discuss with reference to gender and competing explanations of suicide.
For many, a rational response in life is to fear death after all life is our most personal and valuable asset, and it is not surprising that a copious amount of research has been devoted to suicide. The functionalist Emile Durkheim was the first to put forth the study of suicide in a serious attempt to establish empiricism in sociology, believing what is traditionally regarded as the most individual of all acts to still be open to sociological investigation. Before attempting to discuss the question at hand it may seem obvious, however, necessary to define what is meant by suicide.
According to Durkheim “the term suicide is applied to all cases of death resulting directly or indirectly from a positive or negative act of the victim himself, which he knows will produce this result”. This definition is used to separate true suicides from accidental deaths ( Durkheim 1897 quoted in Thompson 1982:110).Suicide is a problem of considerable magnitude and is recognised as one of the main causes of premature mortality in young adults in western developed countries. In the United Kingdom alone there were 5554 suicides in adults aged 15 and over in 2006, according to the national statistics this represented almost one percent of the total of all deaths at ages 15 and over.
Gender differences in suicide rates become apparent when presented with data stating three quarters of the above 5554 suicides were by men and the highest rates were among the 15-44 age group (office for national statistics, 2006). Other research shows that for those males in the 15-34 age group suicide is the second most common cause of death (Charlton et al.,1992)2* Of all that is known about the phenomenon of suicide it is a general consensus that gender is a major factor in differential suicide rates, the main issue concerning this essay.
Although Durkheim wrote little about gender differences in suicide; primarily due to his claim that ‘women are not imaginative enough and intellectually complex enough to kill themselves’ ( a statement seriously lacking any empirical support) (Durkheim 1897 quoted in Maris 2000) it is important to note that he did lay the ground work for research to come. This essay will discuss the competing explanations of gender differences in suicide, specifically the statistical findings that the suicide rate for young men is much higher than for young women in western developed countries.
The first explanation that will be put forth is that the gender socialisation of males increases the likelihood of male suicide completion compared to that of women. This explanation will be discussed in relation to differences in help seeking behaviour, differences in choice of method and the relationship between alcohol/drug abuse and suicide in men. Following this, a further explanation to be analyzed is that of the ‘masculinity crises’ and its part to play in the alarming rate of male suicides.
Although the above will be presented as explanations for the title under discussion, all explanations put forth will be approached with caution and appropriately analyzed and evaluated. Finally having suggested explanations, I will question the methodology used in the study of suicide and whether this contributes to what may appear to be higher male suicide rates. In effect, do men really commit more suicide or is this simply based on unreliable data collection?
Socialisation and the social construction of gender are highly relevant in explaining the higher suicide rate in men. It is important to firstly explain what is meant by gender and to distinguish its meaning from sex. Sex refers to the biological and anatomical differences between ‘males’ and ‘females’ which includes a variation in hormones, chromosomes and genitals, Gender however, refers to the cultural classification of people as either ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’.
Many sociologists argue that gender is socially constructed through socialisation. Ann Oakley for example saw gender role socialisation taking place through manipulation, such as the dressing of girls in pink pretty clothing, through verbal appellations in telling boys only girls cry, through canalization for example directing boys toward more aggressive toys and girls toward dolls, finally by exposing boys and girls to different activities for example directing girls towards the more domestic tasks ( Oakley, 1972) *3.
In short it is thought that male socialisation in many respects increases the likelihood of suicide. Goldberg (1997) states that the socialisation of men in this way has created a ‘prescription for suicide’, through reinforcing the stereotype of masculinity permission is given to men to be inexpressive and more violent a combination which inevitably increase the risk of completed suicide. This notion can be used to explain why it is that although mental illness is more prevalent among women than men, men commit more suicide.
Depression specifically is regarded as one of the major risk factors for suicide mortality, around 30% of those who have committed suicide are reported to have suffered from depression (Bertolote et al, 2004)*5. It seems strange that although women display higher rates of mental illness than men (Foster 1995) 9* more men opt to take their own lives. It is argued that as a consequence of women’s learned gender roles they are more likely to seek professional help when experiencing problems which may lead to suicidal thoughts. Dohrenwend and Dohrenwend state that:
Sex differences in the seeking of help correspond to attitudinal differences: women are more likely to admit distress . . . to define their problems in mental-health terms . . . and to have favourable attitudes towards psychiatric treatment. (Dohrenwend and Dohrenwend 1977: 1338) 6*
Men on the other hand are encouraged from infancy to ‘tough it out’, to be silent and strong and to display independence and self reliance, consequently it is less socially acceptable for men to ask for help. This underlying social unacceptability results in mens reluctance to disclose suicidal thoughts and to discuss general emotional problems. The suicide in Avon study found that in the 4 weeks before death 80 per cent of men who had committed suicide had in fact had no contact with professional help, be it a GP or any other form of support organisation (Vassilas and Morgan1997) 7*.
It appears that gender socialisation to some extent contributes to the comparatively higher rate of male suicide completion. It should also be noted that stereotypical gender norms means women are more likely to be labelled as mentally ill. Some feminists argue that cultural sexism, coupled with specific sexism from professionals, makes women more susceptible to psychiatric labelling.
Furthermore women are labelled as mentally ill whether they conform to the female gender stereotype or whether they reject them (Chelter 1972:115) 8*. In this way the health service maybe deemed patriarchal and misogynistic, however, this increased likelihood of women being labelled mentally ill means help is quicker to be provided and suicidal thinking is quicker to be recognized in women in comparison to men.
Another way traditional male socialisation maybe partly to blame for the higher male suicide rate is in one’s choice of suicide method. Gender differences in the choice of suicide method have consistently been found, it is argued that the traditional male role is consistent with more aggressive thus more successful methods of suicides. Women tend to use methods of lower lethality than men, favouring poisons such as the deliberate overdose of pharmaceutical medication, this accounted for 26% of female suicides in 1996 compared to only 6% in males.
Men however use more violent methods such as firearms which accounted for 63% of male deaths in 1996 and hanging which accounted for 17% of all male suicides (Maris et al, 2000). Canetto and Sakinofsky (1998) have stated that in western society suicide completion appears to be more socially acceptable for men whereas a failed suicide attempt is deemed emasculating this in part has contributed to higher successful suicides in men in order to avoid the ridicule of their masculinity. The conventional Gender socialisation of men thus makes them more vulnerable to suicide completion, this may also explain why it is thought that women attempt more suicide than men yet more men die.
To critique the above claim one could argue that the choice of method is more complex than gender socialisation; it may have more to do with the availability of certain methods. In countries where there is greater access to firearms due to looser restrictions there is a higher use of that method in the attempting suicide. Nevertheless, one could still maintain that in western developed countries due to the adherence to female norms women are less likely to have access to guns and feel more comfortable with their use, resulting in an increase use of other methods such as prescription drugs.
Some have argued that the choice of method is far more complex than what has just been suggested; even if men and women opt for the same method (the method is held constant) men are still more likely to die. A study by Shneidman and Farberow (1957, cited in Lester and Lester 1971:88-90) of suicidal behaviour in Los Angeles found that out of 24 men who chose to jump from high places in an attempt to kill themselves 16 succeeded, this was compared with only 9 out of 20 women who succeeded by using the same method.
Further to this, an article titled ‘values destroyed by death’ noted that women are socialised more so than men to be more concerned with their physical appearance and this may even extend to their appearance after death. This may therefore influence their choice of suicide method, opting more for a method that would be less disfiguring, such methods are also more likely to be less lethal (Diggory and Rothman 1961 cited in Lester and Lester 1971:90).
This notion that women have a concern with their physical appearance even after death seems far fetch, nevertheless, many do hold a consensus that gender socialisation certainly does play its part in the choice of suicide method which manifests itself in higher male suicide completion.
The relationship between Alcohol and substance abuse and suicidal behaviour has long been recognized. Alcohol and drugs can affect a person’s ability to reason, their judgment and can act as a depressant. This increased depression over time and decreased inhibition makes a person vulnerable to attempting suicide especially with a history of mental illness.
According to research men are nine times more likely to abuse alcohol than women, and those men who are diagnosed as alcoholics are assigned a six times increase likelihood of suicide compared to the general population.( Harris et al ,1997) 12*. Once again this may be partly due to the notion that male gender socialisation results in men responding to stress and problems through distracting themselves by use of alcohol or drugs as this is more socially acceptable, in contrast women are more likely to talk about their problems as shown above.
In western society a man’s masculinity also renders itself open in measurement in relation to how much alcohol he can consume. All this in turn affects and increases the likelihood of suicidal thinking. However other studies such as that by Rossow (1993 cited in Maris et al 2000:358) 13* in Norway between 1911 and 1990 found that there was a positive relationship between alcohol and suicide in men but not for women. A similar outcome was found by Makela (1996 cited in Maris et al 2000:358) 14* in Finland. This shows that alcohol alone is not sufficient to be labelled an increase cause of suicide in all cases; the matter is complex in nature and requires a deeper understanding of its direct and relational affects in men.
Although all above explanations contribute some blame to traditional male socialisation it is important to note that many others argue that the differences between the two sexes are predominantly biological not social. They have claimed that higher amounts of testosterone and other androgens in males make them more aggressive and because suicide is considered to be violence or aggression turned toward one self it seems men are more biologically likely to take their own lives.
Studies of brain biochemistry specifically of serotonin metabolite CSF 5-HIAA (cerebrospinal fluid levels of 5-hydroxyindoleacetic) and its relationship to suicide specifically to violent suicide has shown that male suicidal subject have lower CSF 5-HIAA and account for the majority of violent suicides. Maris et al (2000) suggested that gender based biochemical differences may play a part in different suicidal behaviour.
Although from a sociological perspective one can not agree with the extreme view that biology is largely to blame for differences in suicide among men and women, it seems reasonable to speculate that it may have some part to play even if one is to conclude suicide to be a social phenomenon.
Another explanation that many sociologists have pointed to in explaining the alarming rate of young male suicides is the notion of a ‘masculinity crisis’. society has changed dramatically over the last thirty or so years, the western world has become less patriarchal as gender equality becomes more the norm.
Roles, in both the work place and at home are not as gender defined as they once were and it is now not uncommon to see men stay at home as househusbands whilst their wives go out to work in high paid employment. Platt and Hawton’s systematic review (2000) 20* shows a strong relationship between unemployment and suicide especially in men. If taking the UK as a prime example then it is clear that there has been a move away from heavy industries that have traditionally been seen as ‘masculine’ and a move towards more service and information sectors which are traditionally viewed as feminine jobs.
This has brought about many opportunities for women but at the same time has resulted in higher unemployment rates for men. The breadwinner mentality is still strong in the western world and not being able to provide for ones family is a major worry for many males, and to have been able to do so at one point but not anymore can have a devastating affect.
In a materialistic capitalist society, like those to be found in the Western World, material goods are symbols of wealth and prestige and if one is not able to provide them anymore, they can begin to see themselves as worthless. Arthur Britain ( 1989) *28 and Susan Faludi (1999) 27*, among many other sociologists often argue that men are experiencing more confusion they are not coping with the consequences of changes in the gender order.
The rise of feminist movements, the decline of heavy manual work as well as gay and black politics brought about a collapse of the legitimacy of patriarchal power. This can therefore be seen as a positive for many women increasing their independence as they no longer become soley reliant on their husbands for money. Men however have traditionally based their identity on their work and had a safe position as the head of the family as the breadwinner this gave then comfort and a sense of place, changes that upset this are seen to have a negative effect on men leaving them uncertain about their position in general.
They can no longer guarantee holding the highest power in their working lives whiles at home there is no certainty that they will be the breadwinner. Consequently there is a split between retributive man, those who assert traditional masculinity and the new man, these men don’t rigidly hold the traditional masculine stereotype and are regarded as more emotional and more concerned with their body image.
Those who maintain the traditional masculine identity, the breadwinner and head of household mentality find themselves in conflict with the changes in the gender social order, their position can lead to isolation and aggression, two emotions very much associated with suicide. On the other hand those who have adapted to these changes are less confused of their position and are less prone to suicide than the former.
It could however be that the new man may be in part a media myth and the existence of the myth has created further uncertainty amongst males about how best to be a man. It should also be noted that this notion of masculinity being in crisis is controversial as although the breakdown of such rigid stereotypes has had a negative effect on those who would have found solace and comfort in being the dominant figure it has had an equally positive affect on males who have found themselves in the past to be subordinate and exploited such as homosexuals.
There are also many men who have adapted happily and suffer no confusion as well as many who have maintained their position as the breadwinner. Others such as Kimmel (1987)15* have noted that as evident in historical research this alarming concern over the role of man is by no means a new occurrence, in this sense caution should be taken not treat it as so, as it becomes easier to associate and in part blame the rise in young male suicide with what may initially seem as a new crisis in men.
It should also be maintained that although there is much debate over this ‘masculinity crisis’ and the breakdown of gender roles many feminists believe that western society is still patriarchal and the exploitation of women is still present. In 1991 6.53 million women earned less than two thirds of median male earnings, were mostly engaged in part time work and comprised 65% of all low paid workers (Oppenheim,1993)29*.
Although such figures have improved in the last 17 years, progress has not been so drastic to warrant labelling the west as having broken-down patriarchal power. Some scholars particularly feminists have gone further and rejected the idea that a crisis in masculinity could even exists pointing to evidence like the above. Irene Bruegel’s (2000) 16* a feminist economist presents a sceptical account of the feminisation of the work force, she like many others is cynical that men are hard done by and maintains that women can still be seen to be the subordinate class.
The sociologist John Maclnnes (1998) 17* presents a more extreme view on the matter stating that ‘masculinity’ does not exist as the property, character trait or aspect of identity of individuals, as a result any theory that relates a ‘crisis in masculinity’ in its explanation such as that used by many sociologists to explain the higher suicide rate in males must be equally flawed. Another critical point to make regarding this so called ‘masculinity crisis’ is that it may be right that men have lost some power but it is wrong to see this power as a loss in relation to women, the collapse of the predominantly male employment industry may be more to blame.
It could therefore be suggested that this so called crisis may not be one of masculinity but one of the working class. If we are to acknowledge the existence of a ‘masculinity crisis’ then it is evident that this problem in masculinity is far more complicated and sophisticated than one may initially think, it seems strange that we talk of a crisis in masculinity but there is no such crisis in femininity considering the gender roles for both sexes have in part broken down.
The relationship between a masculinity crisis and suicide can appear to be a direct one but as it only affects such a small proportion of males, there must be other underlying factors which combine with this feeling to have such an immensely negative effect on ones life.
All these explanations can go some way to piecing together why exactly suicide is more common in males. Yet, because, they offer an opinion and evidence to back it up, does not mean they should be taken as definite arguments. The relationship between gender and suicide is complex as although the most consistent findings in sociology are sexual differences there are other important variants within these male, female based differences. Racial variations in gender differences are evident in many statistics, according to Maris et al (2000:149) in 1996 white males comprised 73% of all completed suicides, yet the ratio of male to female suicide is larger among blacks with 6:1 compared to 4.3:1 among whites. It also appears that white females are far more likely to commit suicide than black females.
Although this essay is specifically focused on the western world there are still variations within these different countries nevertheless the male suicide rate is consistently greater than that of females in most societies. An exception worth noting (although not part of the western world) is the People’s Republic of China where the suicide rate among women is far greater than among the men (Shiang 1998 cited in Maris et al 2000:148)18*. Sexual orientation is also a variant found in male and female differences in suicide. Some epidemiologists have found that homosexuals are at a higher risk of suicide, this is due to negative experiences they may encounter that are linked to their sexuality.
It is however gay and bisexual men that have been found to be at an increased risk of suicide as lesbian and bisexual women in such situations seem to report a desire to hurt themselves while gay and bisexual men have a greater desire to want to die (D’Augelli et al, 2001)21* However it is difficult to know the true risk of suicide for gay or bisexual men as sexual orientation is not recorded at the registration of death and due to stigma still attached to gay men that strongly conflicts with the traditional identity of a masculine man, same sex relationships are not necessarily made public (Remafedi et al,1998) 19*
To further evaluate the title itself it is important to mention the many methodological issues in the study of suicide, some of which may even lead one to question whether the statement under discussion is simply based on unreliable and problematic research. Firstly, most research on gender differences in suicide are based on official statistics which like any other statistics are socially constructed. Whether a sudden death is classified as a suicide is ultimately the coroner’s decision who is generally influenced by other people.
The relatives and friends of the deceased might persuade the coroner not to record the death as a suicide (Douglas,1967) 25*. Due to this J.Maxwell Atkinson (1978) 26* states that when positivists study suicide what they uncover are simply the commonsense theories of coroners for example their increased tendency to record the deaths of lonely people as suicides. Further to this in having argued that there are sex differences in the social acceptability of suicide there may also be sex differences in the willingness to record any death as a suicide.
The high rate of male suicides may be due to the fact that suicide is more socially acceptable for males and so more coroners are willing to classify them as such. Canetto (1992-3)22* suggests that our stereotypical views that ‘she died for love and he for glory’ also affects a coroner’s and societies interpretation of the reasons for suicidal behaviour, with women more likely to of committed suicide due to problems in their personal relationships, stress and mental illness whereas men do so because of threats to their public persona. Another problem which may affect the gender differences in suicide statistics are the method a person may choose in taking their own life.
It may be the case that some methods are more likely to lead to a classification of suicide. Platt et al (1988,220) 23* conducted research on suicides in Edinburgh between 1968 and 1983 and found that ‘suicide and undetermined deaths could not be differentiated by gender, marital status, previous psychiatric contact, age or social class’ the only important factor was method, with those opting for more severe active methods such as firearms or hanging being much more likely to be classified as suicides than those choosing passive methods such overdoses or poisoning. In this sense because active methods are more likely to be used by men, men appear to have a higher rate of suicide yet this may simply be because the methods they use are more likely to be classified as such.
Another problem with suicide statistics is that they tend to ignore attempted suicide and concentrate on the cases in which death occurs, has this created a moral panic in men as they appear to have higher rates of completed suicides? It could be argued that the very focus on the higher male suicide rate detracts from the fact that suicide attempts are much higher in women. On average the rate of female attempted suicide is 1.5 times higher than those for men with the highest rate found in those aged 15-24 (Hawton and Heeringen, 2000, 55-56) ADD IN BIB.
It could therefore be suggested that although suicide completion is much higher in men an equal focus should be assigned to the higher female attempted suicide rate, one should not mask or detract from the other. In this way it becomes more appropriate to describe suicidal behaviour as a problem of both young males and young females. One should however, take caution not to confuse self-harm with suicide attempts as some mental health professionals often use the terms interchangeably (Favazza and Rosenthal 1993 cited in Duffy and Ryan 2004)30*.
An attempted suicide is the direct intent to ends one’s life, self harm is not. Suicide statistics can be affected in this way; it may be the case that the lack of differentiation between the two terms has lead to an overrepresentation of attempted suicides, this is of course a speculation and further research is required to discover the extent to which this is true. It is evident that suicide; as a sociological subject is a complex phenomenon to study and this is not helped by its many ethical dilemmas.
Suicide is not something which many would be comfortable talking about with a reporter or filling in a questionnaire beforehand if they were feeling such a way and even after, if relatives or friends were to give their opinions on why the event occurred, there would be a strong tendency for bias- to either protect the deceased or to offer what they believed was the real reason. If we are to accept that males are more likely to cover up their emotions, then suicide is likely to be less expected and therefore the answer to the questions regarding why, are more difficult to come by.
Such ethical problems have lead to the consensus that suicide is grossly underreported and thus underestimated in official statistics. However, there has been some improvement in the gathering of statistical information and it is this that leads one to question whether changes in suicide rates such as the increasing male suicide rate is due to changes in suicide statistics not in the actual changes in suicide rates (Kelleher 1996) 31*.
In considering future research, it is important to mention that although there is an impressive body of quantitative research, this is not always the best method to use when in cases such as suicide and gender comparisons. Statistics highlight the facts; that males do commit suicide more than females. In such a subject, however, a deeper analysis is needed to explain why exactly this is and why although the figures evidently show males to kill themselves more, the reasoning’s behind this might not be at all dominated by gender based assumptions.
There is a need for more qualitative based research, such as individual case studies which will give a different angle and deeper insight into suicide. However, it is essential that care should taken not to compare men and women as though the two groups are homogeneous a flaw found in a lot of existing studies. It is therefore imperative to emphasize that not all men are the same what may be the case for one man may not apply to another, there is a diversity of masculinity and femininity and generalizations should be avoided.
In conclusion sociologists have debated greatly over why exactly suicide is more common in males than in females. In this essay it has been suggested that the socialisation of males in western society is partly to blame. Through the reinforcement of what society deems acceptable male behaviour men are less likely to ask for help professional or otherwise when experiencing suicidal thoughts or any illness which may lead to an increased likelihood of attempting suicide. Conventional Gender socialisation of males is also consistent with more aggressive thus more successful methods of completed suicides.
As stated above in western society suicide completion appears to be more socially acceptable for men whereas a failed suicide attempt is deemed emasculating. Alcohol and drug misuse also appears to have a stronger relationship with the socially constructed notion of ‘masculinity’, because the abuse of such substances is closely linked to suicide, men are thus more vulnerable to the taking of their own lives. The idea of a ‘masculinity crisis’ was also presented as a contributing factor to the higher male suicide rate.
Sociologists have suggested that society is now at odds with the basis of masculinity, with the partial break down in the roles of both men and women, men appear to be confused and more likely to commit suicide. It has however been strongly emphasised that all explanations that have been presented are simply suggestions to shed light on why young men appear to commit more suicide than young women in the western world, they are not definite reasons for the differences in the suicide rates between the two sexes.
Many males are subjected to western gender role socialisation or feel a lack of role in society but the percentage of those who commit suicide are so small that it suggests that there must be other factors or a combination of reasons for them to do so. It is on the whole difficult to make generalizations when the ultimate cause of suicide, even in cases where the event is likely or a note is left because the defining factor remains hidden. Individual actions often require individual research and understanding but this proves immensely difficult in the use of statistics because quantitative data focuses on generalisations.
Suicide statistics should therefore be approached with caution as in some cases they appear to show higher male suicide rates when this may not be the case. It should also be noted that suicide is for many a last resort. Although in some cases, death is the main intention; in many others it is often a cry for help- the intention is to live, to feel worthy and to highlight one’s pain and problems in the most extreme ways.
- Thompson, Kenneth. 1982. Emile Durkheim. London: Tavistock Publications.
- Sources: Office for National Statistics, General Register Office for Scotland, Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency)
- Lester G, Lester d (1971) Suicide The Gamble With Death. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., Prentice-Hall
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