Data from nearly 14,000 men shows those who strongly identify as self-reliant are more likely to have suicidal thoughts.
For the first time large-scale empirical research has linked notions of what it is to be a man with suicidal thoughts, which the researchers argue puts a spotlight on the societal attitudes that may be putting men at greater risk of taking their own lives.
The study of almost 14,000 Australian men found that those who strongly identified with being self-reliant, a trait traditionally associated with maleness, were significantly more likely to report thoughts of suicide or self harm.
Lead researcher Professor Jane Pirkis, director of the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Mental Health, says the results reinforce the need for health services to better engage men who, as a group, are less likely to seek help. But she says the bigger message is that we need to question the expectations society is putting on men, such as expecting men to be tough.
“The challenge goes beyond mental health policy and suicide prevention policy. The issue is more to do with our society,” says Professor Pirkis, who was one of the drivers behind the ABC’s Man Up documentary last year that explored the links between masculinity and suicide. Man Up was funded by men’s health charity The Movember Foundation.
“Notions of masculinity aren’t just dreamed up by individuals, they are imposed by society from childhood in quite subtle ways,’’ says Professor Pirkis. “So if a sense of needing to be self-reliant is an issue for some men, and some women also, we as a society need to think about how we are bringing up our boys and girls. Even today boys are told not to cry and young men are told to toughen up.”
While women have higher rates of attempted suicide, men are three times more likely to actually die from suicide. While six out of every 100,000 women take their own lives each year, the rate for men is 18.5 in every 100,000.
Men’s propensity to use more lethal methods of suicide, combined with higher levels of alcohol abuse, may partly explain the discrepancy, says Pirkis. While it has long been thought that men’s sense of what it is to be a man may also be putting men at risk, until now she says there had only been limited empirical evidence supporting such a correlation.
“The large size of the cohort puts this study at the forefront of research linking a particular element of traditional masculinity – self-reliance – to suicide risk,” she says.
– Andrew Trounson
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