What's Killing America's Men?

The final beat of a man's heart starts a lifetime of grieving for those left behind. And when a man dies by suicide it is sudden, often violent, and usually unexpected. Suicide survivors face grief, questions, and challenges - and are often left to deal with this traumatic aftermath with shame, stigma, and isolation.

So let's rewind the clock - How did he get there? What were his feelings one minute, one week, one year before he decided to die? And ... why did he do it?

No decision is simple, yet research shows that there are things that elevate someone's risk for suicide and there are protective factors that mitigate those risks. The CDC lists suicide risk factors as the following:

Risk Factors

  • Family history of suicide
  • Family history of child maltreatment
  • Previous suicide attempt(s)
  • History of mental disorders, particularly clinical depression
  • History of alcohol and substance abuse
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Impulsive or aggressive tendencies
  • Cultural and religious beliefs (e.g., belief that suicide is noble resolution of a personal dilemma)
  • Local epidemics of suicide
  • Isolation, a feeling of being cut off from other people
  • Barriers to accessing mental health treatment
  • Loss (relational, social, work, or financial)
  • Physical illness
  • Easy access to lethal methods
  • Unwillingness to seek help because of the stigma attached to mental health and substance abuse disorders or to suicidal thoughts

On the flip side, protective factors buffer individuals from suicidal thoughts and behavior. Consider reading that sentence again - these are things you can do for yourself and loved ones so that they can be here tomorrow:

  • Effective clinical care for mental, physical, and substance abuse disorders
  • Easy access to a variety of clinical interventions and support for help seeking
  • Family and community support (connectedness)
  • Support from ongoing medical and mental health care relationships
  • Skills in problem solving, conflict resolution, and nonviolent ways of handling disputes
  • Cultural and religious beliefs that discourage suicide and support instincts for self-preservation

So who's at risk? The CDC publishes fatal injury data, and the chart below illustrates the male suicide rate per 100,000 people for four major ethnic groups; and although I am a data-driven person, the loss of a human life is not a statistic. It is a tragic, discordant unforeseen ending to a vision of a life that could have been - and thrusts those left behind to pick up pieces to a puzzle they didn't even want to solve. One aim of Visible Man is to start discussions that can maximize the protective factors under our control, and mitigate the risk factors to suicide so that those who struggle to make it another day can choose to live.

Suicide statistics in America by ethnicity (2007-2017)

What about age? A surprisingly high number of suicides are completed by elderly and middle-aged men. These are the providers, fathers, and brothers who struggle to have healthy outlets, owing mostly to the culture of masculinity in which we were raised.  

If there is any good news in this, it is that conversations around men's mental are growing. For the first time ever, the American Psychological Association (APA) published guidelines to help psychologists work with men and boys.

Wait - what?  You mean men have feelings? Apparently "traditional masculinity is psychologically harmful and that socializing boys to suppress their emotions causes damage that echoes both inwardly and outwardly"

The following BBC video dives in to a few men's experiences - and those left behind. It's important to recognize that each culture, ethnicity, age, and even profession inform a man's experience that leads him to a choice to end his life. As the video shows, we white guys have had it good for a long time. But the number of deaths caused by suicide stands in stark contrast to the breadth and magnitude of discussions around it, regardless of ethnic background, income level, and age. Watch the news and you're more likely to fear death by a terrorist attack or some incurable disease when suicide is a much more real - and preventable - threat.