A Fair Discussion of the Suicide Statistics? By @henrymcg
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