Why Men Kill Themselves

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Author: Jed Diamond

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SOME people believe that if a person is going to kill themselves, there’s nothing one can do. If you try to stop them, they’ll just bide their time and do it later.

Suicide is a major worldwide epidemic taking the lives of more than one million people a year, according to the World Health Organisation. Estimates suggest that 10 to 20 times more individuals attempt suicide. Self-harm now takes more lives than war, murder, and natural disasters combined.

My father tried to commit suicide when I was five years old. Although he lived, our lives were never the same. I grew up wondering what happened to my father and was terrified that the same thing would happen to me.

A colleague of mine, Dr Thomas Joiner, lost his father to suicide while he was at university. Although his father was depressed, he didn’t seem like a suicide risk.

He was described in an essay as “gregarious, the kind of guy who was forever talking and laughing and bending people his way. He wasn’t a brittle person with bad genes and big problems. Thomas Joiner Sr. was a successful businessman, a former marine, tough even by southern standards”.

As it turned out, these “manly” traits may have contributed to his demise. So what are the warning signs? Dr Joiner, who’s dedicated his life to preventing suicides like his father’s, has proposed a new theory of why people take their own lives, proposing three key motivational aspects which contribute to suicide:

1) A sense of not belonging, of being alone;
2) A sense of not contributing, of being a burden;
3) A capability for suicide, not being afraid to die

All three of these motivations or preconditions must be in place before someone will attempt suicide, according to Dr Joiner.

Although women, too, can take their own lives when they suffer at the intersection of “feeling alone, feeling a burden, and not being afraid to die,” this is clearly a more male phenomenon. Throughout our lives males take more risks and invite injury more often. We are taught that “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” and “no pain, no gain”.

We often invest so much of our lives in our work, when we lose our jobs or retire we feel worthless, unable to contribute. It’s a short step to feeling we are a burden on those we love. We also put less effort into developing and maintaining friendships so we can come to feel more and more alone.

Preventing suicide in men

The three overlapping circles of Dr Joiner’s model help alert us to the kinds of questions we might ask ourselves if we want to prevent suicide. Dr Joiner and his colleagues have developed a questionnaire that addresses these issues.

Thwarted belongingness:

These days, I feel disconnected from other people;
These days, I rarely interact with people who care about me;
These days, I don’t feel I belong;
These days, I often feel like an outsider in social gatherings.

Perceived burdensomeness:

These days the people in my life would be better off if I were gone;
These days the people in my life would be happier without me;
These days I think I have failed the people in my life;
These days I feel like a burden on the people in my life.

Capacity for suicide :

Things that scare most people do not scare me;
The sight of my own blood does not bother me;
I can tolerate a lot more pain than most people;
I am not at all afraid to die.

Like most people, I’ve had thoughts of suicide at numerous times in my life, but the one time I felt at high risk of actually killing myself was when all three sectors overlapped. I was lucky that my wife was smart enough to remove the gun from the house until I saw a therapist and got into treatment for my depression and my suicide risk subsided.

Dr Joiner remembers the day his father disappeared.

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