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The "Male Suicide Epidemic"

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskeptic
By Neuroskeptic
Oct 5, 2015 10:48 PMNov 20, 2019 1:20 AM


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The mass murder and suicide in a college in Oregon last week brought out the following claim by a professional troll:

So is there an epidemic of male suicides? I'll assume we're talking about the USA although what I'll say goes for most other countries. Here are the facts:

  • Male suicide rates are much higher than female suicide rates. The most recent available data for the USA in from 2013, when the age-adjusted male:female suicide ratio was 3.68:1.

  • However, this male suicide bias isn't new. Thirty years previously, in 1983, the male:female suicide ratio was almost identical, at 3.64:1.

  • Absolute suicide rates rose during the 1980s, fell during the 1990s, reached a minimum in 2000 and have since been rising again, although they are still lower than in the late 80s. In 2000, the suicide minimum, male suicide rates were 85% of the 2013 male level, but female rates were even lower, just 73% of the 2013 female level. So the ratio of males to females was 4.28:1 in 2000 and has been falling since then.

  • The male suicide bias goes back a very long way. In 1950, age-adjusted male suicide rates in the USA were 3.78 times higher than in females - almost exactly the same ratio as in 2013.

  • Going even further back, good statistics from the USA are harder to come by, but in 1905 British Dr William Wynn Westcott wrote that"The relation of the sexes to suicide has been remarkably constant in our country, and in Europe generally, standing at three males to one female." So the ratio was roughly the same as today, over a century ago.

  • The fact that males are more likely to die by suicide than females is not unique to the USA or even to Western countries. The same thing holds true of the great majority of countries around the world, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe (although not always to the same extent.)

In summary, there is no male suicide outbreak. Every suicide is a tragedy and since most suicides are men, it is largely a male tragedy, one that deserves all possible attention - but it is not an epidemic. Then again, perhaps by "epidemic" Milo does not mean to imply that this was a new phenomenon? Some epidemics last a long time, after all. Surely it's shocking that males have such high suicide rates, however long this has been true? Well, yes, but my point is that whatever is driving male suicides, it is not especially modern, and is not confined to the West. So the problem, whatever it is, is unlikely to be due to how we 'treat boys', given that boys were treated very differently 100 years ago, in Afghanistan or in Zimbabwe today, and yet the male suicide bias has remained all too constant. Incidentally, Milo's is not the first simplistic theory to have come undone when faced with the facts about suicide. For instance, back in 2009 a pop psychologist called Oliver James claimed that British people are 'twice as unhappy' as their counterparts in the rest of Europe. However, this does not seem plausible given that British suicide rates are much lower than those in some of the other European countries, such as France and Germany, which James held up as models of well-being. Similarly, consider the idea that we can measure and compare levels of mental illness in different countries around the world using standardized surveys. These surveys have been carried out, at great expense. The problem is, that these estimates don't correlate with suicide rates. For instance, Japan's suicide rate is more than double that of the USA, even though Japan has a rate of mental illness (according to the surveys) three times smaller than the USA. Overall, suicide statistics are, if you'll forgive the expression, the graveyard of bad ideas about society.

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