Sunday May 07, 2017

We need to talk about male suicide

While suicide prevention efforts have largely focused on youth and young adults, we really need to be talking about middle-aged men and what can be done to help them, says political scientist Shannon Sampert.

While suicide prevention efforts have largely focused on youth and young adults, we really need to be talking about middle-aged men and what can be done to help them, says political scientist Shannon Sampert. (Getty Images/Caiaimage)

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Political scientist Shannon Sampert says not enough is being done to help the group of Canadians who are most likely to die by suicide — men, especially those who are middle-aged.

"We know that men commit three out of every four suicides and that seven men die by suicide every day in Canada," says Sampert, a University of Winnipeg professor and the director of The Evidence Network of Canadian Health Policy.

Shannon Sampert

Public health has largely ignored middle-aged men and their risk of suicide, says Shannon Sampert of EvidenceNetwork.ca. (provided )

Data from Statistics Canada also shows that the risk of death by suicide among Canadian men is largest in the age range of around 40 to 60 years old. After that the risk lowers, and then rises again after 80 years old.  

Sampert says that a lot of suicide prevention efforts are focused on on youth, especially indigenous youth — and rightly so, because it is the number one cause of death for young people (often because other factors like disease aren't as prevalent).

But she says there isn't a lot of discussion around older men and suicide.

That she says that may partly be because, while women are in fact more likely to attempt killing themselves, men are more likely to actually die by suicide.

"Men, when they kill themselves, they do it in a lethal means, and they usually don't tell us that they're going to do it ahead of time. So there's nothing left afterwards to actually have a conversation about what led to the suicide attempt." - Shannon Sampert

Sampert says that suicide is an "incredibly complex" issue to study, but says research shows that a life-altering event like divorce, childhood trauma, as well as isolation and the loneliness experienced in older age, are possible factors.

"When … all of a sudden all of the safety pieces that have been put in place for them, families, marriage, a cohort of friends, when that gets taken away from you bit by bit and you have nothing left, obviously that's where you can go, thinking about suicide and depression."

More needs to be done to reach out to this group of individuals, says Sampert.

While the federal government will be launching a national suicide prevention service later this year, Sampert says they are missing an opportunity by not doing a gender analysis to try and understand the specific needs men may have.

For example, she says, traditional talk-based therapy usually doesn't work for middle-aged men.

"Men are told to man up … you don't show your feelings, don't show your pain, suck it up and continue, because that's what men have been told culturally to do from the time that they're babies. Very few men actually have what's called mental health literacy." - Shannon Sampert

She says programs for men which incorporate a shared activity, such as working together in a tool shop or taking part in an art project, have been shown to combat feelings of isolation in participants.

Sampert, who witnessed a man die by suicide when she was an undergraduate student, says she personally has some male acquaintances in her life now whose behaviour is concerning to her. 

"For anybody who's in the sort of position that I'm in, it is something that consumes your thoughts a lot of the time, and all you can do as a person who is observing this is make sure that they're aware that there's help available."

Need help?

If you or someone you know is suffering from mental health issues or suicidal thoughts, the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention website is a good resource. Find a 24-hour crisis centre.