By Sigurd Neubauer
A newly released study in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine found that in 2019, 80 percent of suicides committed in the United States were by men. The study also found that 60 percent of men who died by suicide often had no known mental health conditions.
The study, which examined 70,376 male suicides between 2016 to 2018, is based on data compiled by the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Violent Death Reporting System.
The study found: “Most male suicide decedents had no known mental health conditions. More frequently, those without known mental health conditions died by firearm, and many tested positive for alcohol. Adolescents, young adults, and middle-aged males without known mental health conditions more often had relationship problems, arguments, and/or a crisis as a precipitating circumstance than those with known mental health conditions.”
The study was co-authored by Professor Mark S. Kaplan of the University of California, Los Angeles
To better understand these grim statistics, and why suicide has become an overwhelmingly male phenomenon, I turned to a study co-authored by Professor Mark S. Kaplan of the University of California, Los Angeles. In a separate paper titled “The Social Nature of Male Suicide: A New Analytic Model,” Kaplan and colleagues write that “more men complete suicide every year in every country in the world with one exception, China.” In it, they argue that “male suicide often follows job loss, business failure, relationship loss, or an embarrassing public disclosure.”
“Because suicide is a male phenomenon, adopting a new paradigm to fight it is more important than ever,” says Kaplan, who emphasizes that researchers must try to find answers as to why men are more vulnerable than women to succumb to it.
“Overall, 85 percent of victims of gun homicides are men. When this is broken down by race and gender, the data finds that among African-Americans, nearly 90 percent are men. The ratio of men to women among African-American firearms victims is eight times higher for men,” Kaplan explains.
The numbers only get worse.
“Whether it is suicide, homicide, or accidental deaths, violent death in America is an overwhelmingly male phenomenon,” the professor adds. They are also more vulnerable to intentional or unintentional death, with the ratio being much higher than among women.
“Because suicide is a male phenomenon, adopting a new paradigm to fight it is more important than ever”
The trust deficit
In contemporary America, few issues are more polarizing than the constitutional right to bear arms. Popularly referred to as the Second Amendment, it plays a dominant role in the country’s Culture Wars. In it, culture is simultaneously the battleground, the weapon, and the prize to be won or vanquished.
But irrespective of where one stands on the role of guns in society, the statistics linking the male suicide phenomenon to easily accessible firearms and alcohol, clearly need to be understood better to help save lives.
Given these societal dynamics, “there is little room for a conversation on the correlation between guns and suicide because of the prominent role the Second Amendment plays in the Culture Wars,” Kaplan says.
“The right to bear arms is really about fear and the breakdown of trust in government,” he adds.
According to a 2020 study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) on trust in government, only 46.5 percent of Americans have trust in their own government. In neighboring Canada, 60 percent of the population trusts its government, while Norway and Switzerland scored the highest at 82.9 percent and 84.6 percent, respectively.
Among other Western nations, Australia, France, Italy, and the United Kingdom polled lower than the United States, according to the OECD.
In the United States, where trust in government is relatively low, and the trust of expertise is also on the decline, examining the grim numbers behind the male suicide phenomenon and what can be done to combat it, present an obvious challenge.
Given these dynamics, Kaplan argues that while there is a lack of understanding of the male suicide phenomena, it is often oversimplified by inadvertently being tied to mental health.
“It is not all about mental health, but suicide among men is often a response to major crises in their lives by ending them,” he says. Even at an older age, suicide among men is 12 times greater than among women. With older men, it is often about chronic health problems such as cancer, he adds.
Meanwhile, the non-binary trend in how some Americans view gender complicates the study of male suicide; the professor explains as it is becoming increasingly difficult to secure funding for it.
“We are not doing enough to attenuate the suicide among men as it is hard to investigate it, and get good funding. Finding the necessary funding to study men’s vulnerability and how it plays out with men dying by suicide, is becoming increasingly harder.”
Death by despair
The inability to listen plays out in academic and political life, including when it comes to understanding the role of men in society.
Much of this has, of course, to do with many subjects being introduced into the contemporary American “debate” often falls along the left-right nexus and thus become part of the Culture Wars.
Mantras such as “we need to have a conversation” about X, Y or Z, is increasingly interpreted by many – especially among those who distrust experts and traditional media – as yet another monologue imposed through cultural condescension.
While it is yet too early to fully understand what drives the changing role of masculinity in American society, and its ramifications for men and boys, the existing data on male suicide as outlined in Kaplan’s research is clear – and alarming.
Other areas of concern for men’s health and wellbeing in society are popularly referred to as the death of despair, which manifests itself through alcoholism, drug abuse and cardiometabolic disorders.
Take alcoholism for example. According to the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, carried out by the National Institute of Health, 29.7 percent of men 18 and older engage in excessive drinking, also known as binge drinking. The rate of alcohol abuse increased during the Covid-19 pandemic as well.
While much has already been written about the country’s cardiometabolic disorders and the opioid pandemic in particular, what has not been said specifically is that these trends are disproportionally impacting men as death trends continue to rise.
It is both disappointing and perplexing that finding funding to study men’s health, including their vulnerabilities, is increasingly difficult in America’s polarizing environment where almost every issue has become politized.
Returning to our interview with Kaplan, the professor says: “We often present men as one-dimensional in terms of the challenges they face in society and life in particular. Some of them fall behind in many aspects of life, whether it is in higher education or through their inability to get or retain employment, which is why we need to pay more attention to boys and men,” he asserts.
When men face hardship in America, unlike women who are often open to seeking help, they often go at it alone. “If one doesn’t pull himself up from the bootstraps when faced with adversity, many American men blame themselves as opposed to examining structural dynamics leading to their job loss, for example,” Kaplan says. The welfare system in the US was designed for women and their children, and not for men, he adds.
“We really need to listen to men and the challenges they increasingly face in society, but really listen,” Kaplan concludes.