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Why do so many American men die by suicide?

Most American men who die by suicide do not have any known history of mental health problems. So, what is to blame?
Credit: alphaspirit / Adobe Stock
Key Takeaways
  • It is commonly thought that greater than 90% of people who die by suicide had a diagnosable mental health condition.
  • A new study finds that this is not the case for American males. About 60% of male suicides were not linked to mental health issues.
  • Instead, suicide is more driven by sudden impulsiveness in reaction to acute stressful situations. Men with access to firearms are most at risk.

American men kill themselves at much higher rates than American women. In 2019, males accounted for nearly 80% of the 47,511 suicide deaths in the U.S., and suicide was the eighth leading cause of death for males over the age of ten. But counterintuitively, about 60% of American males who died by suicide had no known mental health issues, according to a new study conducted by researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and UCLA.

Rethinking suicide

“What’s striking about our study is the conspicuous absence of standard psychiatric markers of suicidality among a large number of males of all ages who die by suicide,” Mark Kaplan, a professor of social welfare at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, said in a statement.

This sharply counters a commonly cited statistic “that greater than 90% of people who die by suicide had a diagnosable mental health condition,” Kaplan and his colleagues wrote.

Instead, they found that alcohol and firearms heavily contributed to the deaths of the majority of men who commit suicide.

Poring over data collected between 2016 and 2018 via the CDC’s National Violent Death Reporting System, the researchers found that males without known mental health issues who died by suicide were between 50% and 90% more likely to use a firearm and 20% more likely to have tested positive for alcohol postmortem compared to males with mental health issues who committed suicide. They were also 40% to 50% more likely to have been in a recent argument with a friend or loved one, 30% more likely to have suffered a recent eviction, 60% to 80% more likely to have faced recent legal problems, and 30% to 50% more likely to have relationship problems.

Impulse control

While it’s likely that some of the males without known mental health issues were concealing struggles, the study hints at a different explanation for why males commit suicide rather than just poor mental health: Men are more impulsive than women.

This emotional reactivity, exacerbated by alcohol intake and coupled with much greater access to guns (men are twice as likely than women to own a gun), result in far more males taking their own lives. About 83% of suicide attempts with firearms result in death, by far the most “effective” method.

Greater investment and focus on mental health is undeniably needed in the U.S., but to make a dent in the tragic number of American male suicides, reducing firearm access, advocating responsible alcohol use, lowering poverty, and teaching males healthy coping methods to deal with acutely stressful situations might save a lot more lives.


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