When we think about suicide, the common thought is that of an emotionally turbulent adolescent plunging into an abyss of pain so deep that they can no longer bear it. For this reason, many of our few suicide prevention resources have been channeled toward preventing teen suicide. While it is true that teenagers have a high rate of suicide and a rapidly increasing suicide rate, middle aged adult males have the highest rate of suicide in the United States.
Why is it that the one demographic which is statistically more likely to have power and privilege be also statistically more likely to desire death? This is a question which has puzzled researchers and preventionists alike.
There are several factors which place a person at risk for transitioning from suicide ideation (i.e. thoughts about suicide) to risk for suicide (i.e., high likelihood of making an attempt). These factors are feelings of being a burden to loved ones, feelings of social isolation, and a low fear of dying. Merely possessing two of these factors can place one at risk for suicide ideation. The cocktail of the three can be a killer.
Burdensomeness. When you think about how men, especially white men, in our culture are conditioned by hypermasculinity, it is easy to see how men in middle age begin to feel like a burden. Health problems begin to surface, newer, younger men at work are rising through the ranks, and these middle aged men have begun the transition into older adulthood. Hypermasculinity preaches the gospel of “men must be strong and in charge or they are not a man.” As men begin to lose their ability to do this, their feelings of being a burden increase.
Social Isolation. Women are conditioned to talk about their feelings. Conversely, men are conditioned to avoid all displays of emotions except anger. Bottling up emotions, not seeking social support, and having zero outlets for appropriately addressing the stress and depression that comes with aging is a perfect recipe for feeling isolated.
Fearlessness About Death. The more we are exposed to life-threatening situations, the more habituated we become to death anxiety. Men are much more likely to be placed into life-threatening or painful experiences; consequently, men tend to have much higher pain thresholds than women. Moreover, because men are “supposed to be tough and brave” they also tend to take more risks, again habituating them to be fearless when it comes to death. Because of this habituation, men tend to be less fearful of both getting hurt and dying than women are.
What Can Be Done? Ultimately, until we change our culture from one of hypermasculinity to one of healthy masculinity, we will not see male suicide rates decline. However, there are ways we can support our older men who may be struggling with internalized emotional problems. The first is encouraging them to talk about their feelings and seeking social support from other men. Man Therapy is an excellent online resource for men in need of mental health assistance. Secondly, we shouldn’t be afraid to ask the men in our lives if they are okay or need help. We should stop assuming that men are tough enough to survive the turbulence of life. No one is strong enough to do so without help from those around them.
If you or a loved one is at risk for suicide, please click here.