Each year suicide claims around 800,000 lives. This cause of death knows no geographic boundaries and makes no distinction between race, age, or social class. There is, however, one salient similarity among global suicide trends that researchers can’t help but notice: Men commit suicide more than women. The reason why is unclear, although there seem to be several social and possibly even biological factors at play.

Second Leading Cause of Death

If you are a man between the ages of 20 and 34, one of the biggest threats to your life is not violence or terminal cancer, but rather your own hands. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's 2011 report on U.S. males' leading causes of death, suicide comes in second for this demographic. In the UK, where more men died from suicide in 2014 than in all the wars since 1945, suicide is the number one cause of death for young men.

And while this behavior is commonly associated with white males, the Suicide Prevention Resource Center reports that suicide ranks third among leading causes of death for young black males.

It’s not just young men who are affected by suicide, however. The rates have recently gone up for middle-aged white men, Garra Lloyd-Lester, youth suicide prevention specialist at the Suicide Prevention Center of NYS, told Medical Daily. Statistically, as a man’s age increases, so does his risk of suicide. In 2013, the highest suicide rate was among people aged 45 to 64 years of age. The second highest rates were in those 85 years and older.

Although suicide rates in general have spiked, male rates have consistently remained higher than those among women. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, in 2013 men were four times more likely than women to die from suicide, and as reported by Mosaic Science, in some areas nearly eight in 10 of all suicides were male.

“The rates of completed suicides have always been higher for men,” Lloyd-Lester said. So, the question remains: why?

The Enigma of Manhood

Many experts in mental health and suicide believe that society’s rigid idea of what it means to be a man is actually lethal. For example, according to Martin Seager, a clinical psychologist and consultant to the Samaritans, a volunteer-based charity providing emotional support to anyone in emotional distress, the idea that manhood is a tangible entity which can be both earned and lost is detrimental to a man’s feeling of self-worth.

“The masculine gender feels they’re responsible for providing and protecting others and for being successful,” Seager told Mosaic Science. “When a woman becomes unemployed, it’s painful, but she doesn’t feel like she’s lost her sense of identity or femininity. When a man loses his work, he feels he’s not a man.”

Along with these nearly impossible to reach social expectations, men are historically told to keep their problems to themselves and never show weakness.

“Men tend to ask for help differently than women do and less often than women,” Lloyd-Lester said. Unfortunately, it's help that could mean the difference between a suicide attempt and a suicide death.

Society also tends to present the idea of “man as an island,” another possible explanation for higher rates.

“Although women might think about suicide very seriously, because of their social connectedness, they may also think, ‘My God, what will my kids do? What will my mum think?’ So there’s forbearance from completing the act,” said Dr. Brian Little, a psychology professor at the University of Cambridge, as reported by Mosaic Science.

man standing by water
Suicide is the second leading cause of death for American men between the ages of 20 and 34. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Biological Factor

It’s hard to ignore that women and men are different biologically and that this physical difference may play a role in suicide rates. The idea of a suicide gene is an unproven yet interesting theory that could explain the gender disparity. The best candidate for this elusive suicide gene is SKA2, a gene which plays a role in controlling stress hormones, Newsweek reported.

“Stress is like driving,” Dr. Zachary Kaminsky, a researcher involved with the John Hopkins University research on the gene, told Newsweek. “You can drive really fast, and that can be useful, but you have to be able to slow down.”

SKA2, in essence, acts as the “break” to “slow down” the stress process. Researchers speculate that in some individuals this break is faulty. By looking at just this one gene, the team was able to predict with 80 to 90 percent accuracy whether an individual had thoughts of suicide or had made an attempt. The gene is also linked with the cortisol system, which does not interact with the female estrogen system, Kaminsky explained, which could shed light on suicide's stark gender differences.

The problem of male suicide doesn’t seem to lie in male depression either. Women report higher rates of depression than men and more women attempt suicide in their lives than men do. The difference lies in the way that men and women carry out their suicide attempts.

“The research would suggest that part of the reason for that is that men tend to use more lethal means,” Lloyd-Lester said.

The preferred method of suicide among men in 2012 was firearms, a weapon reported as having the highest incidences of suicide death. The preferred method of suicide for women in the same year was poisoning, a method with one of the lowest incideces of suicide death. These choice methods give insight into the mind of the individual attempting suicide and may reflect differences in the manner that men and women seek help. For women, suicide may be viewed as a cry for help, while for men suicide is a clear execution attempt.

According to Lloyd-Lester, there is even speculation that health professionals may treat men and women seeking help for suicidal thoughts differently.

Closing The Gap And Ending The Epidemic

One of the best ways to address the male problem of suicide is by adapting society’s idea of “manhood.” Changing the ways that young boys view what it means to be a man may help them to develop help-seeking behavior when they get older.

“One form of suicide prevention is to change the messages we give young boys about what it means to be a man,” Lloyd-Lester said. “Theoretically this makes sense. We start changing those messages for young boys later in life and change their expectations for seeking help.”

If you or anyone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts or exhibiting suicidal behavior, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255, available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to help individuals in suicidal crises within the United States.