What you need to know:
- A recurrent observation is that men are poor at communicating their feelings hence may not get help in time.
- A study in Australia found that men learned in childhood that “expressing emotions such as sadness reduced masculine standing".
The World Suicide Prevention Day marked annually on September 10, passed quietly in Kenya. Established in 2003 by the International Association for Suicide Prevention in collaboration with the World Health Organisation (WHO), the day is meant to create awareness that suicide is preventable.
Global estimates indicate that there are more than 700,000 suicides annually. According to WHO, “more than twice as many males die due to suicide as females (12.6 per 100,000 for males against 5.4 for females)”.
Data trends on Kenya show that suicide rates among men have consistently been three to four times that of women in the last two decades. In 2019, for instance, 9.1 per cent of men in every 100,000 died from suicide compared to 3.2 per cent of women, according to World Bank statistics.
Factors leading to suicide include stress, depression, mental illness, bereavement, broken relationships, frustration with economic difficulties and loneliness. Since these problems are not unique to men, why do they resort to suicide?
A recurrent observation is that men are poor at communicating their feelings hence may not get help in time. Clinical psychologists observe men consulting on mental health are much fewer than women doing so. This may be due to a social norm that they should withstand pain and suffering as a demonstration of masculinity.
It is arguable that such conditioning also makes it difficult for men to accept failure. By being cast in the role of the provider, men are also the primary absorbers of financial pressures and crises related to loss of employment and other adversities.
England and Wales recorded 16.5 per cent male suicides for every 100,000 men in 2019, the highest in two decades, with those aged 45-49 being the most at risk. This cohort was noted to be “more likely to be affected by economic adversity, alcoholism and isolation” as well as indifference to help.
A 2021 study titled Masculinities, emotions and men's suicide by Jo River and Michael Flood established that the high rates of male suicide could be linked to “active pursuit of hegemonic masculinity via emotional restriction”. Based on 18 Australian men who had attempted suicide, the study noted that the participants learned in childhood that “expressing emotions such as sadness reduced masculine standing, whereas expressing … anger through acts of violence could enhance masculine status”. The men thus became vulnerable to suicide if they felt that their masculinity was under siege. “Many participants indicated that suicide presented a means of ending painful emotions”.
This study registered the paradox of suicide as “an alternative means of demonstrating masculinity” by casting such men as heroes who rejected suffering by paying the ultimate price. But suicide can also be seen as a sign of cowardice that contradicts conventional masculinity.
Andrea Miranda-Mendizabel’s 2019 paper titled Gender differences in suicidal behaviour in adolescents and young adults: systematic review and meta-analysis of longitudinal studies established another paradox, that although females exhibited higher risk of attempting suicide, men had a higher one for actually accomplishing it. One explanation is that men adopt more violent methods of suicide. Another is that they have easier access to the means with which to execute the act, especially in countries with liberal laws on gun ownership.
Risk factors for attempting suicide specific to females were “eating disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, bi-polar disorder, being victim of dating violence, depressive symptoms, interpersonal problems and previous abortion”. For men, they were “disruptive behaviour, conduct problems, hopelessness, parental separation or divorce, friend’s suicidal behaviour, and access to means”. Male-specific risk factors for actual death from suicide were “drug abuse, externalising disorders, and access to means”.
That men are the majority consumers of alcohol and other psychotropic substances suggests that they are seeking stress-relievers. Unfortunately, this actually emboldens them and can induce impulsive suicide.
Solutions suggested in different platforms include encouraging men to open up, have confidantes they can rely on when in crisis and engage in social events and exercises that reduce isolation. The 2020 study “Expressions of masculinity and associations with suicidal ideation among young males” by Tania L. King and others, calls for “alternative and multiple ways of being a male…a relaxation of norms regarding self-reliance, and encouragement of help-seeking”.
Important as the subject is, it is regrettable that comprehensive gender disaggregated national data on suicide are hard to come by. Neither the Kenya Demographic and Health Survey 2022 nor the Economic Survey 2023 feature the topic. Academic publications on the subject are scarce.
Dearth of scientific information encourages speculation about the subject rather than relying on facts that can be used to develop local solutions. The Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, universities, other research institutions and public health entities have a duty to generate such data.
The writer is an international gender and development consultant and scholar ([email protected]