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A Fair Discussion of the Suicide Statistics? By @henrymcg

January 24, 2013

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http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jan/23/suicide-rates-men-gender-issue

The sub-heading of Jane Powell’s interesting CiF piece on suicides informs us, Laurie Penny-style , that ‘It’s time to address the root causes of men’s depression and inability to talk’. The piece gives some statistics that I haven’t checked in detail, but which tally with a story I keep hearing, and not just in the UK: that men commit suicide more often than women, by a large margin. But right from the word go, there are important facts missing from the article. Powell states:

‘A complacent explanation for the difference is that men attempt more violent forms of suicide and are therefore more likely to be successful’

Firstly, can someone tell me why this explanation would be “complacent”?

More important are the statistics that have been left out, that give the bigger picture. Powell briefly mentions that men’s suicides are “more successful” (which doesn’t seem the right word). In fact statistics worldwide tend to indicate a) that attempted suicides are far more likely than actual suicides, and b) that women are 2 to 3 times more likely to attempt suicide than men. The reasons for this fact are unclear, but why is it not mentioned?

Then there is this gem which is the problem sentence in the piece:

‘Poverty and mental health issues affect both genders. The variable factor is culture and society’

For a start, there is a whacking great assumption here: that men and women function in much the same way psychologically. This is a common enough belief among feminists. The problem is that wanting something to be true doesn’t constitute scientific evidence that it is so.

In fact there are multiple factors in the physiological make-up of men and women that probably lead to differences in experience and behaviour. Whether people writing in the Guardian want it to be true or not, there is strong evidence that brain and hormonal chemistry differ between men and women, and that these differences are associated with, for example: risk-taking, and violence (also social and sexual behaviour, information processing, mood changes)

If we’re going to be at all rational about the factors affecting suicide we cannot ignore the possibility that these differences might have a lot to do with the statistical profile of suicide seen worldwide (not just in one culture).

Then there is the vagueness of saying “The variable factor is culture and society”. It’s not clear what this catch-all phrase covers, but another factor missing is the possibility that the genders experience life differently. Quite apart from physiological differences, is it not the case that women form better social networks than men, remain closer to family and friends?

It certainly seems to be the case that men are less able to form strong bonds with their children – the most important part of their lives for many. The reasons for this difference may be partly “cultural” – society expects men to go out and work, women to get maternity pay and look after the kids – but the effect is of contrasting life-scenarios where many men miss out on a lot of joy.

Powell is more interested in the idea that men are less likely to talk about depression (which is strongly linked to suicide) and – for me – it’s where she starts to make more sense:

‘It seems to be accepted that men just won’t ask for help or therapy. Calm’s phonelines tell a different story. We’ve found that if you promote a service aimed at men, in a manner that fits with their lifestyle and expectations, they will ask for help. We struggle to keep up with demand’

But soon, her beliefs about gender seem to get in the way again:

‘We need to challenge the idea that a “strong and silent” man is desirable and challenge the notion that men talking, showing emotion and being “sensitive” is weak’

Again we’re given a narrow analysis. There’s no talk of gender differences, nor of differing experiences of parenthood, but plenty of this thesis that the main factor is men not wanting to show emotion. I don’t mean to suggest that being able to talk wouldn’t help depressed men – it would. But we need the whole picture, not the ideologically correct one.

In conclusion, I think the article avoids mentioning several important possible factors in the suicide statistics – and perhaps does so for questionable reasons. If we allow an honest debate of the issue to be derailed by what we want to believe then we risk failing to help those suffering from serious depression. And anyone who has known a suicide will know how devastating the consequences can be

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. January 24, 2013 5:41 pm

    I think it’s typical an article about men would be written by a woman in the Graun. what would feminists say if it were the other way round?

    My main problem with her article is it falls into that common feminist pattern of making out women’s problems are caused by men and so men must change, and men’s problems are caused by men and so men must change!

    will I get called a misogynist if I suggest that maybe, just maybe, some of men’s problems are caused by women??

  2. January 25, 2013 8:36 am

    “an article about men would be written by a woman in the Graun. what would feminists say if it were the other way round?”

    The reception could be interesting :) Mind you a child development specialist with the enterprising name of Steve Biddulph has been talking about raising girls in he Guardian and on the BBC recently*, and they’ve been listening sort-of politely. Possibly because he’s saying the right sorts of things. The piece on male suicides here is indeed verging on the patronising.

    * I’m not sure if either the BBC or Guardian were paying him any attention when he was talking about a “boy-catastrophe unfolding”. He’s now worried about girls and selling books on the subject.

  3. January 27, 2013 9:05 am

    I didn’t actually read the original piece. I got as far as: “It’s time to address the root causes of men’s depression and inability to talk” before thinking: “more gender stereotyping bullshit, fuck that”.

    I got a bit further with your reply. Down to: “For a start, there is a whacking great assumption here: that men and women function in much the same way psychologically. This is a common enough belief among feminists. The problem is that wanting something to be true doesn’t constitute scientific evidence that it is so.”

    I skimmed through the rest. But these bits stuck out: “her beliefs about gender seem to get in the way again”. (She could probably say the same thing about you.) And “But we need the whole picture, not the ideologically correct one.” (Your view is by far the more ideologically correct one – just not in the Guardian perhaps.)

    Gaaaaah. These “arguments” about what men are just make me tired. Give it a rest already. Men aren’t all the same.

  4. January 27, 2013 1:51 pm

    Hi, thanks for yr comment,

    “She could probably say the same thing about you…Your view is by far the more ideologically correct one – just not in the Guardian perhaps”

    What ideology would that be correct under?

    I’d hazard a guess that you think I’m taking an ‘old-fashioned’ view of differences between the sexes, but in fact I try to base my ideas about gender on the scientific argument that there is better evidence for these differences than the ‘blank slate’ argument that .men and women are the same but for social pressures making them grow differently.

    Just one argument among many: I get to talk to a lot of parents and teachers – the people closest to children. 95% of the ones I’ve spoken to utterly reject the idea that boys and girls are basically the same. Again and again I hear that boys tend to charge about making a lot of noise, spend hours with model cars, trains,and puzzles, whilst girls are quieter,more cooperative, make rules up to ensure fairness, learn to read faster etc

    In any case – if I were wrong about all this – and I don’t think I am – then what of the other half of my argument – that men and women may lead different sorts of social and family lives – vital to their well-being and happiness?

  5. John de Melle permalink
    February 26, 2013 11:08 am

    In your article you write “that men commit suicide more often than women”.

    Strange, as I thought that one commits suicide only once.

    (PS I think that you mean “that more men commit suicide than women”)

  6. March 13, 2013 10:18 pm

    I have read that men have more ‘success’ because they tend to mean it, but I think that that is as much stereotyping as anything else. This is a very raw subject for me personally, and I think that targeting help is a good thing to do. There is a disparity, I think, where the feminist agenda has pushed all sorts of funding and help towards women – which I don’t object to at all – and men have been somewhat neglected. But I think the real problem is the original article is largely anecdotal, and (sorry) so is this response.

    We need some research done, that hopefully doesn’t have a pre-agreed agenda, to really understand suicide by both genders. If there are differences then we need to find ways that work for both – the ‘one size fits all because that’s my political agenda’ approach is hurting people and not serving anybody. It may well be that the provision for women needs addressing too, but without something solid to draw conclusions from it’s just speculating.

    • March 31, 2013 11:52 am

      Your criticism of this piece as slightly ‘anecdotal’ is interesting and I’d like to know what you mean.

      Because the science of psychological gender differences is fogged with political concerns, it’s hard to get a clear picture from all the research. So some of my comments on that subject MAY seem like a shot in the dark – or more likely, the accusation of believing in old-fashioned gender roles will be thrown my way, as if no further argument were necessary.

      Nevertheless, looking at other species, especially primates (our closest relatives), at differences in brain structure and function between the sexes, and at different behaviours that still persist, I think we have to admit that significant gender differences are a much better scientific hypothesis than any blank-slate theory.

      I once discussed this with a female psychologist who accepted that there were differences, but waved them away as unimportant – for her everything was secondary to the politics. It’s very common, and one root cause of the problems that I think we agree upon.

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