Why do American men kill themselves so often? And why do their chances of dying by suicide increase as they move into the middle years and old age?
Understanding the differences between men and women from a Western cultural and societal perspective provides clues. These gender differences and their effect on suicide have been a focus of research by Silvia Sara Canetto, PhD, professor of psychology at Colorado State University. Her findings are revealing and thought provoking.
“There is a perceived masculinity of suicide that is borne out in historical evidence,” notes Canetto. “In Western cultures suicide is generally considered a relatively powerful act, one requiring energy, courage and intelligence assumed to be found only in white educated men.”
Moreover, suicide in males was rated as less wrong, foolish, weak and more permissible than suicide in females, according to research (Deluty, 1988-1989). Canetto’s own research shows that in Western industrialized countries it is considered unmasculine to survive a suicide attempt.
“The social pressure against males surviving a suicidal act may lead males to kill themselves without warning others about it, and even though they may be ambivalent about dying,” she notes. “Males may correctly anticipate being ridiculed if they survive a suicidal act.”
Additionally, Canetto’s research suggests society considers male suicide a relatively understandable response to impersonal problems such as achievement failures, social problems such as an economic recession, or health problems.
“Suicide in response to a physical illness is consistently viewed as more understandable than suicide in response to any other stressor,” Canetto says. “A suicidal individual is perceived as less maladjusted if the suicidal behavior is precipitated by a serious physical illness.”
Yet evidence shows that a serious physical illness can often bring about clinical depression, which can in turn lead to thoughts of suicide. Treating the depression can lift self-destructive thoughts, improve quality of life and enhance a person’s ability to cope with illness and cooperate with treatment. This may improve acceptance of their health condition, overall functioning, and chance for remission or even cure.