James Murphy, MD, MBA, LSSBB, is board certified in child and adolescent psychiatry and psychiatry. He serves at the Division Chief, Child and Adolescent Psychiatry for Inova Behavioral Health Services.
Who is at greatest risk of dying by suicide? The answer may surprise you. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, of the approximately 130 people who die by suicide every day in the United States, about 70 percent are white men. Men in general are nearly four times as likely to die by suicide as women are, and middle-aged white men have the highest suicide rate of all, most commonly using firearms.
In fact, men are at greater risk for completed suicide from adolescence through adulthood and into older adulthood. Often, men are socialized to avoid discussing emotional and psychological struggles and are less likely to seek help. It’s important for everyone to be aware of the risk factors and alert to the signs of suicidality in men, so we can work together to address this quiet crisis.
Common suicide risk factors in men
- Access to lethal means, especially firearms, increases suicide risk.
- For adolescent males, traumas, social stressors and family difficulties can all lead to impulsive suicide.
- For adult males, job loss, substance use, mental health problems, and a combination of other stressors can lead to suicidality.
- Drug and alcohol use is one of the biggest risk factors. Addiction doesn’t occur alone; it comes with other stressors. Impairment from drugs or alcohol increases suicide risk as well.
- Negative life events, including the death of a spouse, divorce, separation, incarceration, major personal illness or injury, chronic physical problems, and financial problems can all increase suicide risk.
- Family history of suicide or attempted suicide is another predictor, as are previous suicide attempts.
Importance of community in reducing suicide risk in men
Both middle-aged men and older adult men are less likely to seek help from a healthcare provider for any health issue and especially for a mental health challenge. So, it’s important for men to have a community that is aware of what’s going on in a man’s life. Social isolation is a warning sign for suicide risk, but the other side of the coin, having a sense of connection and belonging, is protective for general health and longevity as well as for mental health. A community can provide social support and can reach out when a man is struggling.
How can I help if I think someone is at risk?
- Keep an eye on the individual’s daily routine and structure. How well is this man functioning in his day-to-day life?
- Give him an opportunity to speak. It’s easy to say that men “don’t want to talk,” and some have “strong and silent” personalities, but often, men do want to share their struggles and don’t feel they have an opportunity. Listening openly and without judgment can enable your loved one to speak up.
- Be open and honest about stressful life events that are happening to this man. Acknowledging that a tough thing has happened, whether it’s a divorce or a serious medical diagnosis, and talking about it regularly can open lines of communication.
- Don’t minimize or “blow off” discussions about mental health struggles. Let the men in your life know you’re here for them.
- Practice good firearm safety, which is one of the biggest mitigation factors for suicide. If there are mental health or depression concerns, get the firearms out of the house to reduce access.
How can at-risk men seek help?
- Talking to your primary care provider can be a great first step. Men may hesitate to seek out a mental health provider, but primary care providers screen for life stressors, depression, anxiety and substance use. It’s a good place outside the home to start reaching out.
- For urgent needs, telephone counseling and suicide hotlines offer someone who is there in the moment to listen and connect you with help.
- The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has groups and supports, both for individuals who are struggling and for family members. NAMI also has support group listings for stressful life events such as coping with bereavement or terminal illness. There is a Northern Virginia chapter that is active in our community.
- Your local church can also offer lots of ways to get connected with religious or community supports.
Asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. Men who get help are most likely to be around for their families and loved ones who depend on them.
If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at the 988 toll-free hotline with the number 9-8-8. It is available to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress, 24/7. You can also call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. Learn more at suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health breakdown, please call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. Learn more about Inova Behavioral Health Services or about our Inova adult mental health inpatient services specifically.