In every country in the world, male suicides outnumber female. Will Storr asks why.
Finally, Drummond had everything he’d ever dreamed of. He’d come a long way since he was a little boy, upset at his failure to get into the grammar school. That had been a great disappointment to his mother, and to his father, who was an engineer at a pharmaceutical company. His dad had never showed much interest in him as a child.
He didn’t play with him and when he was naughty, he’d put him over the back of a chair and wallop him. That’s just the way men were in those days. Your father was feared and respected. Dads were dads.
It was difficult, seeing the grammar boys pass by the house in their smart caps, every morning. Drummond had always dreamed of becoming a headteacher in a little school in a perfect village when he grew up, but he was only able to get a place at the technical school learning woodwork and bricklaying.
The careers tutor almost laughed when he told him of his dreams to teach. But Drummond was ambitious. He earned a place at college, became president of its student union. He found a teaching job, married his childhood sweetheart, and slowly climbed his way to a headship in a Norfolk village. He had three children and two cars. His mother, at least, was proud.
And he was sitting alone in a small room, thinking about killing himself.
Impulsivity, brooding rumination, low serotonin, poor social problem-solving abilities – there are many vulnerabilities that can heighten the risk of suicide. Professor Rory O’Connor, President of the International Academy of Suicide Research, has been studying the psychological processes behind self-inflicted death for over 20 years.
“Did you see the news?” he asks when I meet him. The morning’s papers are carrying the latest numbers: 6,233 suicides were registered in the UK in 2013. While the female suicide rate has remained roughly constant since 2007, that for men is at its highest since 2001.
Nearly eight in ten of all suicides are male – a figure that has been rising for over three decades. In 2013, if you were a man between the ages of 20 and 49 who’d died, the most likely cause was not assault nor car crash nor drug abuse nor heart attack, but a decision that you didn’t wish to live any more.
In every country in the world, male suicides outnumber female. The mystery is why? What is it about being male that leads to this? Why, at least in the UK, are middle-aged men most at risk? And why is it getting worse?
Those who study suicide, or work for mental health charities, are keen to press upon the curious that there’s rarely, if ever, a single factor that leads to any self-inflicted death and that mental illness, most commonly depression, usually precedes such an event. “But the really important point is, most people with depression don’t kill themselves,” O’Connor tells me.
“Less than 5 per cent do. So mental illness is not an explanation. For me, the decision to kill yourself is a psychological phenomenon. What we’re trying to do in the lab here is understand the psychology of the suicidal mind.”
We’re sitting in O’Connor’s office on the grounds of Gartnavel Royal Hospital. Through the window, the University of Glasgow’s spire rises into a dreich sky. Paintings by his two children are stuck to a corkboard – an orange monster, a red telephone. Hiding in the cupboard, a grim book collection: Comprehending Suicide; By Their Own Young Hands; Kay Redfield Jamison’s classic memoir of madness, An Unquiet Mind.
O’Connor’s Suicidal Behaviour Research Lab works with survivors in hospitals, assessing them within 24 hours of an attempt and tracking how they fare afterwards. It also carries out experimental studies, testing hypotheses on matters such as pain tolerance in suicidal people and changes in cognition following brief induced periods of stress.
After years of study, O’Connor found something about suicidal minds that surprised him. It’s called social perfectionism. And it might help us understand why men kill themselves in such numbers.
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