Can something as tragic and complex as suicide be gendered? The answer is yes, and this is a fact that appears most evident by looking at the data.
Worldwide data on suicide rates shows a clear difference between men and women victims, and this is an issue that has been known and analysed for many years. On average, men are more than twice as likely to die by suicide than women worldwide. And this is consistently observed in the vast majority of countries across different regions of the world. In the United States, the United Kingdom, and most of Europe, men are 3 to 4 times more likely to die by taking their own life than women. These numbers reach dramatic differences in areas such as Eastern Europe or Ghana, where men are, respectively, 7 and 10 times more likely to die by suicide than women.
This is alarming, and global health organisations need to acknowledge this gender gap and take action. The statement that suicide is gendered is undeniable. But what is the driving force behind this phenomenon? Well, according to most experts, it’s the patriarchy.
In his essay “Manifesto per le emozioni maschili” (“Manifesto for male emotions”), Alberto Penna, dives deep into the different behaviours that adult men and women display when it comes to listening, understanding, processing, and externalising their emotions. As mammals, emotions are deeply rooted in our evolutionary history, and they are essential to our survival. Therefore being equipped to listen, understand, and communicate emotions is key for a healthy life. However, the difference in observed emotional abilities between men and women cannot be explained by minor neurological differences between genders. The root of these differences seems to be found somewhere else.
More interestingly, research has shown that boys are actually more inclined to physical affection than baby girls, and in general, physical contact plays a crucial role in the upbringing of baby boys, even more than in the case of girls. Large-scale studies, however, demonstrate that this need often remains unmet in men. When it comes to baby boys, caregivers have a lower tendency to encourage them in engaging in physical display of emotions. This type of suppression of emotivity becomes more and more pronounced throughout the stages of men’s development, and continues in their adulthood. A pattern that is significantly less frequently observed in women.
In a nutshell, cultural factors operate a systematic suppression of emotivity and physical affection for men which leads to chronic psychological deficiencies. Because of a lack of encouragement in emotional discourse, men are often not equipped to process and overcome these deficiencies. This leads to an inability and a reluctance for expressing their emotions to others, which persists even in extreme cases of depression. This could also explain why women are significantly more likely to reach out for help when living with suicidal thoughts. Help that can often prove crucial and save their lives.
For this reason, we need to take action, initiate discussions and involve men in the fight against the patriarchy. Men need to understand that this is a battle for the well-being of humankind, and they need to be on the frontline. Feminism is a men’s battle as well. Their well-being – and their lives – are on the line.
Before closing, we would like to point out some crucial aspects of this discussion that were not included in the simplified binary picture we presented so far. The effect of gender in suicide rates extends beyond the male-female distinction, and within men victims ulterior fragmentation can be observed (for instance in BIPOC men vs. white men). Within the LGBTQ+ community, suicide rates are dramatically higher than for straight and cisgender people. A particularly worrying side to this phenomenon is the effect that external pressures and prejudice have on LGBTQ+ youth. A 2020 study found that, “transgender and non-binary youth were 2 to 2.5 times as likely to experience depressive symptoms, seriously consider suicide, and attempt suicide compared to their cisgender LGBQ+ peers”. When it comes to gender differences in suicide, acknowledging how this phenomenon affects non-binary and transgender people is important, and would require an extensive discussion that for brevity’s sake we decided not to include here.
A comprehensive and enlightening collection of studies on this aspect (in the context of LGBTQ+ youth) is presented here: https://www.thetrevorproject.org/resources/article/facts-about-lgbtq-youth-suicide/
The key message we want to emphasise is that different factors and sources of societal pressure can combine together and magnify each other to yield a tragic effect. Therefore, suicide should always be analysed holistically.
As pointed out above, we acknowledge that the gender gap in suicide is an extremely complex and multi-faceted phenomenon. The discussion that we presented is partial and comes with a number of limitations. We chose and presented a specific view based on multiple sources, and we remain open to different interpretations. Regardless of the underlying sociological reasons, the fact that suicide is gendered remains, and it is statistically evident.