Generally, older men of European descent fare better than their aging peers — so why do they have the highest suicide rate of any demographic group in the United States? It may be older white men are ill-equipped, psychologically, to deal with the normal challenges of aging, suggests Dr. Silvia Sara Canetto, a professor at Colorado State University. That, and cultural scripts support the perception of suicide as "masculine."

Canetto begins her exploration of suicide vulnerability with a review of past research. "Older adults have higher suicide rates than younger age individuals in almost all regions of the world,” she wrote, adding psychologists commonly explain this as a response to the adversities of late adulthood. Growing old, many people suffer from physical impairments, chronic disease, and pain.

Adults also have less contact with family and friends while those who no longer work become increasingly isolated. At the same time, economic insecurity is a reality for many late-stage adults. Separately or combined, these hardships challenge an older person's dwindling capabilities and suicide becomes the go-to coping strategy — or so many a researcher has suggested.

Yet "the most privileged of older adults, men of European descent, are the most suicide prone," Canetto says. What gives? 

Motivation

Older men do not experience higher rates of physical illness and disability than older women, according to her analysis; so it cannot be said they have greater reason for suicide. However, this is where her logic falters somewhat. While it is true women experience more disease than men, typically the two sexes experience different types of illness, which quite possibly does explain the asymmetric rates of suicide. According to Canetto, women are more likely to suffer "chronic, debilitating illnesses, such as arthritis," while men are more likely to be diagnosed with "immediately life-threatening illnesses, such as cancer." Arguably, a life-threatening disease does provide a real incentive to commit suicide.

Continuing her analysis, Canetto notes that older white men also experience lower levels of pain and functional impairment than older women, while also enjoying better physical and functional health than ethnic-minority older men. Economically, older white men fare better than their peers and they're more likely to be married, too. Socially and economically, then, older white men have less reason to take their lives than others.

According to Canetto, the underlying reason for the higher-than-average rate of suicide among older white men is best explained by psychology. Less likely to suffer from depression or a mental disorder than women, older, European-descent men nevertheless tend to be more dysfunctional in the areas of coping and personality.

"Research points to rigid coping and being low in openness to experience as common in older adults who died of suicide," Canetto wrote. "Specifically, U.S. psychological autopsy studies found that the (mostly European-descent male) older adult decedents were often remembered as having been rigid, conscientious, disciplined, conservative, habit driven, emotionally unaware, and emotionally constricted." Ouch!

While his personality may constitute the root cause, the general social milieu likely contributes to an older white man's decision to end his life as well. The dominant cultural scripts view suicide as both a "masculine" and "acceptable" response to aging, Canetto explains. Seemingly like lemmings — or the abiding myth of lemmings — these rigid, disciplined, emotionally-unaware men fulfill the "hegemonic-masculinity scripts" written for them and collectively fall on their swords.

Psychological Autopsy

Most convincingly, Canetto ends her article with two portraits of older white male suicides. George Eastman, a founder of Eastman Kodak, died of suicide in 1932 at age 77. Described by newspapers as "unwilling to face the indignities of old age," his biography illuminates an alternate, more human explanation for his death: just two weeks earlier, Eastman lost his lifelong friend and business associate, Walter Hubbell.

Nearly three quarters of a century later, Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson similarly ended his life at age 67. Though friends described his death as a triumph (and blasted his ashes through a cannon in celebration), his ex-wife offered another perspective on his final days when she suggested his suicide was a desperate act carried out by a lonely man. Importantly, at the moment of his death, he was on the phone with his wife; his son and grandson were in his house.

Both men shot themselves with guns. Both times, the media portrayed their suicides as "unemotional" and "unambivalent." Yet, as interpreted by Canetto, both cases are more likely the messy, bloody collision of personal dysfunction and cultural cues.

Ultimately, to make sense of the suicidality of European-descent older men, we must attend to "meanings and practices of masculinity in relation to meanings of aging and meanings of suicide," Canetto wrote. Though suicide may appear the most solitary of acts, it inevitably takes place within an inescapable cultural context. Apparently, no (white) man is an island.

Source: Canetto SS. Suicide: Why Are Older Men So Vulnerable? Men and Masculinities. 2016.