Content warning: The following article contains information relating to suicidality and self-harm.
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Over the past year since my friend died by suicide, I’ve found immense catharsis in learning more about suicidality, depression and the environmental and social factors that influence our mental health. While there may not be a definitive answer to explain why a person suicides or how we can prevent it, it is nonetheless important to critically examine the harmful social and cultural climates that permeate the environments of young people.
An increasing number of scholars and researchers have begun to look through suicidality through the framework of gender roles, especially behaviors and attitudes associated with toxic masculinity.
Toxic masculinity, the frequently used catch-all term employed to talk about issues such as rape culture and locker-room banter, is less often applied to our conversations about mental health. Informing broad assumptions around male emotionality, toxic masculinity underpins a system where vulnerability is seen as a sign of weakness rather than strength, and asking for help is insidiously stigmatized.
While mental health issues are of equal concern for all genders, the prevalence of recorded mental illness is greater for women, suggesting that men may be less likely to seek treatment to identify the problem in the first place. Among those actually diagnosed with mental illness, men are less likely than women to seek help, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
The NIMH also indicates that men are less likely than women to recognize, discuss or seek treatment for symptoms of depression, despite approximately 30% of men reportedly suffering from a period of depression in their lifetime.
Toxic masculinity may also play a role in the increased prevalence of men engaging in dangerous behaviors like binge-drinking and reckless driving. According to a report from the Pan American Health Organization, the life expectancy for men in the Americas is 5.8 years below that of women, partly due to the societal expectations imposed on men to engage in risk-seeking behaviors.
A desire to project stereotypically masculine traits like toughness or virility may explain the statistics around physical injury and substance usage. Men are three times more likely than women to die from injuries and are less likely than women to seek medical care and follow medical instruction.
They are also more likely than women to suffer from substance abuse, despite both women and men facing an equal proclivity to substance use disorders. Based on a research report from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, men are more likely to have emergency room visits or die from overdose-related deaths than women and have higher rates of use or dependence on illicit drugs and alcohol than women.
The increased preference for engaging in risky behaviors, paired with a decreased rate of seeking help, may be applied to better understand the statistics around male suicidality.
According to the NIMH, women are more likely to attempt suicide then men, but men are more likely to die by suicide. This is due in part to the fact that men are more likely to use lethal methods, such as firearms, as men represented 86% of firearm suicide victims in the U.S. from 2012 to 2016. Toxic masculinity well informs the very behaviors and methods employed by men to take their own lives, choosing that which may be perceived as most aggressive, leading to methods that are most deadly and irreversible.
Ultimately, a failure to openly discuss the consequences of oppressive gender roles severely impairs our ability to improve conversations about suicide prevention and avoidable causes of death due to substance use. Hesitating to engage in these uncomfortable conversations serves to perpetuate a public health crisis and detriment to our community.
It is a reminder particularly relevant on a college campus that faced nine deaths throughout the Fall 2019 semester, where three have been confirmed as suicides, four as drug overdoses, one as a fatal car accident — and all seven of these individuals were identified as male.
While the fight to combat gender roles has largely been shaped by the work of feminist activists seeking equal rights for women, what must not be lost in the conversation is that the abolition of gender roles is an advancement for all. Gender roles harmfully enforce rigid expectations, stereotypes and normative assumptions about the roles both men and women ought to play. This in turn prevents all from adequate and necessary emotional expression, and conclusively debilitates overall wellbeing and health.
Sophia Ceniza is a junior writing about the intersections of wellness and social issues. She is also the wellness & outreach director of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Green Juice Skeptic,” runs every other Tuesday.