Tragically, suicide is not as rare as one might think. In 2016, the last year global data is available from the World Health Organization (WHO), there were an estimated 793,000 suicide deaths worldwide.Most were men.
In the UK, the male suicide rate is its lowest since 1981 – 15.5 deaths per 100,000. But suicide is still the single biggest killer of men under the age of 45. And a marked gender split remains. For UK women, the rate is a third of men’s: 4.9 suicides per 100,000.
It’s the same in many other countries. Compared to women, men are three times more likely to die by suicide in Australia, 3.5 times more likely in the US and more than four times more likely in Russia and Argentina. WHO’s data show that nearly 40% of countries have more than 15 suicide deaths per 100,000 men; only 1.5% show a rate that high for women.
The trend goes back a long way. “As long as we’ve been recording it, we’ve seen this disparity,” says psychologist Jill Harkavy-Friedman, vice-president of research for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, a health organisation that supports those affected by suicide.
Suicide is a hugely sensitive, complex issue with a tangled multitude of causes – and the very nature of a death by suicide means we can never fully know the reasons behind it.
Still, as mental health awareness has grown, there is greater public understanding about potential contributing factors. One of the questions that has persisted, though, regards this gender gap. It seems especially large given that women tend to have higher rates of depression diagnoses.
Women also are even more likely than men to attempt suicide. In the US for example, adult women in the US reported a suicide attempt 1.2 times as often as men. But male suicide methods are often more violent, making them more likely to be completed before anyone can intervene. Access to means is a big contributing factor: in the US for example, six-in-10 gun owners are men – and firearms account for more than half of suicides.
Men may also choose these methods because they’re more intent on completing the act. One study of more than 4,000 hospital patients who had engaged in self-harm found, for example, that the men had higher levels of suicidal intent than the women.
Why are men struggling – and what can be done about it?
One key element is communication. It’s too simplistic to say women are willing to share their problems and men tend to bottle them up. But it is true that, for generations, many societies have encouraged men to be “strong” and not admit they’re struggling.
It often starts in childhood. “We tell boys that ‘boys don’t cry’,” says Colman O’Driscoll, executive director of operations and development at Lifeline, an Australian charity providing 24-hour crisis support and suicide prevention services. “We condition boys from a very young age to not express emotion, because to express emotion is to be ‘weak’.”
Mara Grunau, executive director at the Centre for Suicide Prevention in Canada, points out it’s how we talk to our children and how we encourage them to communicate about themselves too: “Mothers talk way more to their girl children than their boy children… and they share and identify feelings” more, she says. “We almost expect women to be emotional.”