Thalia’s recent blog post highlighted the devastating fact that suicide is now the leading cause of death of young people (ages 20-34) in England and Wales. Moreover, the issue of the gender difference in suicide rates was raised. Thalia’s post noted that “whilst women are much more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety and depression, suicide rates show quite the opposite pattern. Approximately 4 times as many young men take their own lives as young women in any one year.”
But why is this gender difference so extreme?
Research suggests that whilst death by suicide is more common in males, nonfatal suicide attempts are more common among females. Young men are more inclined to use more lethal means of suicide than young women. It is therefore possible that although rates of male deaths from suicide are higher, nonfatal suicide attempts in females may artificially inflate the gender difference in suicide rates.
However, whether overestimated or not, it is important that the prevalence of young men taking their own lives is addressed.
The World Health Organisation (2014) noted a number of potential reasons for this gender difference, including gender equality issues, availability and patterns of alcohol consumption, and differences in care-seeking rates for mental disorders between men and women.
A difference in care seeking behaviours has been well documented in previous research, with the greatest difference being displayed in young adults. A recent study of US college students found that young women are not only more likely than men to receive professional treatments (including medication, counselling and therapy) but they also experience more support from family and friends. Findings such as this may explain why young women are much more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety and depression, but have lower suicide rates. Therapeutic interventions for suicide behaviour appear to be effective in adolescents, and females are more likely to seek help. Therefore, increased professional and familial support may explain the reduced rates of suicidality in young women.
“young women are much more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety and depression, but have lower suicide rates”
But what about the young men that do seek support? Do they receive the help they need?
While males have been found to possess more maladaptive attitudes towards suicide than females, approaches to suicide prevention give insufficient consideration to gender differences. A recent review of the literature on this topic highlighted that young women benefit far more from suicide prevention efforts than their male peers. Given the robust gender differences observed, it is apparent that we need to develop more effective strategies for young men.
“approaches to suicide prevention give insufficient consideration to gender differences”
However, a number of promising approaches were found in the literature. One successful strategy used a suicide prevention filmstrip with a male character who, unlike the female character featured, died from suicide. The authors suggested young men may find it easier to identify with a male character, creating a sense of male urgency to seek help. It was also suggested that gender-biased questionnaire wording may have contributed to the success of the initiative. An emphasis on depression in screening measures may encourage more young women to come forward with their concerns, whereas a focus on anger or stress may be more successful for young men.
The prevalence of suicide in young people, and the gender difference in rates of diagnoses, is an issue that urgently needs to be addressed. Research in this field emphasises the need to prioritise the development of tailored prevention initiatives so that young people, specifically males, get the help they need. With suicide prevention initiatives showing promising developments, there is the hope that in the near future both young men and women will be at less of a risk.