Why men commit suicide

Posted on November 20, 2015 in Child & Family Debates

NationalPost.com – Full Comment
November 19, 2015.   Robert Whitley

November is the one month of the year when men’s health issues come to the fore. This is largely due to the efforts of the Movember Foundation, the dynamic charity raising funds and awareness about men’s health.

Men’s mental health is an area of key concern, especially the high rates of suicide. Around 75 per cent of suicides are men, with over 50 per week dying by suicide in Canada. These are particularly pronounced in the 40-60 age group. This has led Prof. Dan Bilsker of Simon Fraser University to declare that we are experiencing a “silent epidemic of male suicide.”

It may be that there is something about being a man in modern society (especially a middle-aged one) that is contributing to these elevated rates of suicide. Three factors, all under-researched and under-acknowledged, may be playing an explanatory role.

Firstly, suicide in men may be linked to occupational stress. Men continue to make up the overwhelming proportion of people working in the most dangerous and dirty occupations. These include mining, fishing, forestry, oil/gas, construction, law enforcement and the military. Many of these jobs are subject to the whims of the seasonal and economic cycle, with periods of intense work followed by periods of unemployment. The very nature of these jobs can further expose workers to social isolation, separation from family, physical risk, injury and violence. This in turn can lead to higher rates of disability, substance use and post-traumatic stress disorder, all proven predictors of suicide.

Secondly, male suicide has been associated with specific life events, which particularly affect middle-aged men. Divorce is an event that may have a particularly deleterious effect. Men can suddenly lose their home, their children, their reputation as well as a substantial portion of their salary and pension to boot. And their experience in family courts can destroy any faith they have in society and justice. Many men report that the family justice system is institutionally sexist, casually entertaining false allegations while continuously ruling against them, regardless of actual circumstances. A common perception is that the legal system will deploy all its might to extract men’s hard won resources, but will rarely enforce fathers’ rights to see their sons and daughters. This can leave men feeling disempowered, desperate and distraught.

These stereotypes emphasize the desirability of male strength, stoicism, struggle and silence in the face of adversity

Thirdly, dominant notions of masculinity may affect suicide rates. The self-sufficient trapper, backwoodsman or lumberjack remains stereotypical representations of Canadian “true grit” masculinity. These stereotypes emphasize the desirability of male strength, stoicism, struggle and silence in the face of adversity. Such notions, internalized by many men today, may contribute to the known fact that men are much less likely to consult mental health services, and much more likely to suffer in silence. Research indicates that close social ties and emotional support are key facilitators to positive mental health. This makes the male predilection to avoid disclosing or discussing mental health issues even more concerning, especially for men experiencing difficulties such as disability, divorce and dangerous work.

Sadly, when men and women attempt to organize discussions about issues affecting men’s mental health, they are sometimes met with hostility. This seems to be based on a misguided notion that men are already privileged in society and thus unworthy of attention. For example, Ryerson University’s Student Union recently rejected a fledgling men’s issues awareness group’s application for official status. Alexandra Godlewski, the group’s social media executive stated “they’re trying to silence men’s voices.” This creates a paradoxical situation. Research indicates that silence is detrimental to men’s mental health. But attempts to discuss men’s issues can face obstruction, especially on campuses. All this indicates a need for more talk and more action.

The Mental Health Commission of Canada exists to foster and promote good mental health among all Canadians. Its mandate was recently renewed for another 10 years, though precise details are as yet unknown. A key task must be the development of a national anti-suicide strategy for all Canadians. This strategy must pay particular attention to groups with elevated rates, such as men (especially middle-aged ones) and aboriginal people, with clear action points and ambitious targets for suicide reduction. A new strategy must address the social determinants of suicide, including occupational issues and workplace stress. Perhaps most pressing is a frank and open investigation of the influence of family law and family courts on suicidal behaviour, as well as examination of the role of societal stereotypes on disclosure, help-seeking and social support.

Such a strategy may be critical to reducing the silent epidemic, as well as the epidemic of silence, regarding male suicide in Canada.

National Post

Robert Whitley is the principal investigator of the Social Psychiatry Research and Interest Group (SPRING) at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute, Department of Psychiatry, McGill University.

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2 Responses to “Why men commit suicide”

  1. Jana Bradley says:

    ‘When discussions are organized to talk about the subject sometimes they are met with hostility.’

    This quote, in the article speaks volumes. In my opinion, this is such an important subject that it should be embraced rather than the topic being met with hostility. Unfortunately, mental health in general is still a taboo subject. There needs to be more advocating for men’s voices in regards to mental health and suicide, there needs to be more advocating to reduce the stigma. Allow me to address the 3 main points within this article.

    Male suicide has been associated with specific life events, which particularly affect middle aged men.

    Going through a separation or divorce is tough to begin with, and it certainly has the power to affect one’s mental health. When a family is going through a separation or divorce in court, more often than not the mother is awarded custody and the man is responsible to pay alimony and/or child support. There are many men out there that are working full time and struggling to pay their child support. In many cases the man is only seeing his child every second weekend. This certainly plays a part in a man’s mental health, and due to the stereotypes that tell men they need to BE A MAN, be strong, and keep it together, this may prevent him from seeking help. One suggestion I have is take a look and reevaluate the child support guidelines, possibly by changing the criteria it uses to determine the monthly amount of support, and by doing this, it could help alleviate the financial burden a man has to support his kids because the rates are too high. I am absolutely not saying that it’s wrong for a man to support his children- he should- but there should be better criteria. The amounts are based on income, but it fails to take into account other expenses that one has- which is extremely important (I went through this myself personally!). This is one way to reduce suicide rates in men.

    Dominant notions of masculinity may affect suicide rates.

    This is absolutely accurate. There are many cultures where it is not ok to come out and tell your parents you are gay, lesbian, transgender; it is culturally forbidden. You need to be a man, marry and take care of your family. I can only imagine what that would do to a person’s mental health. Not being able to express outwardly who you are, how you feel and what you represent in life. I feel that is a tragedy in itself. I feel that when we have these UN meetings there should be talks to plan an international mental health strategy that aims at educating people about mental health issues around the world in every single country. This is a worldwide issue that needs immediate attention and advocacy. Many lives can be saved once mental health is not a taboo subject and when everyone can be who they were born to be, not who society says he should be.

    Suicide in males may be linked to occupational stress.

    I feel that there should be mandatory legislation that all workplaces implement a mental health in the workplace strategy. The Canadian Mental Health Association offers a workshop that will go into a workplace and talk about mental health issues. I feel that this workshop should be mandatory in all workplaces across Canada. I truly believe that by doing this, it will promote awareness and reduce the stigma regarding mental health and reduce the rate of suicide by middle aged men, and others.

  2. Brittany says:

    Before I even read this post I knew that men are less likely than woman to seek help when it comes to their mental health. Unfortunately, It makes complete sense that suicide and lack of help are tied together. I think the stigma surrounding mental health doesn’t make it easy for anybody, not just men, to self-refer or admit that they need help.
    Something that I do not agree with in this article however is the discussion surrounding sexist views within the family court system. I can speak from experience when I say that when I was going through my divorce, I noticed a complete paradigm shift. I was expecting it to be sexist and for everything to automatically shift in my favour, however I was pleasantly surprised. I agree that there are exceptions to the rule in any case however I do not think that it is as sexist as this article makes it out to be. Unfortunately, with divorce comes major changes that will effect every aspect of life. I believe that overall the courts have the children’s best interest in mind. But I definitely agree with how difficult those major life changes can be.


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