By Nina Dragicevic  

To combat cancer, we wear ribbons, run marathons and raise millions. To fight drunk driving, we set up checkpoints, ask drivers to pull over and screen them on the side of the road.

But suicide? We don’t talk about it. It remains sidelined by stigma, despite the fact it’s the second leading cause of death among Canadian young adults and the third leading cause of death in adults under 44.

And men account for three-quarters of those deaths.

“The hard fact is that suicide kills more men under the age of 50 than anything else, more than car accidents, more than cancer,” says British TV personality Dr. Xand van Tulleken, featured in The Passionate Eye documentary Dying for Help. “According to the statistics, the most likely thing to kill me is me.”

Middle-aged men are particularly vulnerable: in Canada, the highest suicide rate is seen among males aged 45 to 59. Experts say the reason for this is a complex interaction of factors.

“Suicide, the inclination to take one’s own life, or at least even consider it, isn’t necessarily wrapped up with someone having a long-standing mental condition,” says Toby Wiseman, editor-in-chief of Men’s Health magazine in the U.K.

“Nonetheless, it is indicative of a situation that men are disproportionately finding themselves in.”

Modern masculinity

In 2017, a survey by Men’s Health captured the unprecedented scope of the issue: 56 per cent of respondents had considered suicide, and a full 70 per cent of men said they would not describe their mental health as “good.”

“[The survey showed] that there is this conflict in notions of masculinity, in the sense that all men these days subscribe to the ideal of ‘the new man,’” Wiseman says. “But I think men are, in general, struggling to reconcile that with an older idea of masculinity...[that they should be] the breadwinner and supporting their family.”

“The struggle in trying to reconcile those different ideas results in this kind of isolation and panic and withdrawal.”

Men use more lethal methods of suicide

It’s estimated that for every suicide death, there are as many as 30 attempts — and women are three to four more times more likely to attempt suicide than men. So why are men three times as likely to die?

“One of the key parts of the answer is to do with method selection,” says psychology professor Rory O’Connor, director of the Suicidal Behaviour Research Laboratory in Scotland.

“Men sadly use more lethal methods of suicide, so when they attempt suicide, they’re more likely to die.”

Relationships and isolation

Married people have lower suicide rates than those who are single, divorced or widowed, and historical data shows suicide rates correlate with divorce rates in Canada.

O’Connor says relationship breakdown can hit men harder.

“[Men, in general,] invest a lot of their emotional support in their partner,” he says. “Now, if their partner leaves them, or for whatever reason the relationship breaks down, that man is potentially isolated, or more likely to be emotionally isolated, because men don’t tend to have the broader network of emotional support that women have.”

Seeking help

Men and women can both find themselves in a mental health crisis, but O’Connor says “men, arguably, are less likely to seek help.”

Another finding from the Men’s Health survey, Wiseman says, adds complexity to the issue: 69 per cent of respondents were adept at identifying poor mental health in friends, family and their partner. They were even able to intervene and help.

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But when it came to “being able to look at themselves in the mirror, acknowledge that they personally have a problem and to act upon that,” men are still struggling, Wiseman says. “I think, perhaps, men back themselves into a corner.”

To learn more, watch Dying for Help on The Passionate Eye.

If you are in a crisis, call 1-833-456-4566, available 24/7, or visit crisisservicescanada.ca for text or chat options.