Differences in Suicide Among Men and Women

Gender Differences in Suicide
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Official statistics and research studies have found that there are a number of gender differences in suicide. This is known as the gender paradox of suicide. While females are more likely to experience suicidal thoughts, for example, males are much more likely to take their own lives.

While it is difficult to discuss this topic, it has to be stressed that this knowledge is important if we are to reduce the number of deaths by suicide occurring in the United States and around the world each year.

The World Health Organization reports that 800,000 people die by suicide each year worldwide. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States.

Understanding these gender differences can help experts better design and develop prevention and intervention strategies.

Differences In Suicide Attempt and Risk of Death

Suicide statistics reveal that women are roughly three times more likely to attempt suicide, though men are around three times more likely to die from suicide. Women show higher rates of suicidal thinking, non-fatal suicidal behavior, and suicide attempts.

There are also differences in the risk of suicide between men and women based on the previous attempt. Around 62% of women who are successful in suicide have made a previous attempt, but when it comes to men, 62% of those who die from suicide have not had a previous attempt.

It's important to discuss one fallacy when it comes it suicide in men and women upfront. The differences in attempts and completed suicides in women have erroneously led many people to believe that suicide attempts in women are often a method of getting attention. This is far from true. It is important to note that among women an attempted (but failed) suicide attempt is the greatest risk factor for suicide in the future, and all suicide attempts, whether in men or in women, need to be taken very seriously.

Differences in Suicide Methods

One of the most important reasons for the difference between suicide attempts and completed suicides between men and women is the method of suicide used.

Men tend to choose violent (more lethal) suicide methods, such as firearms, hanging, and asphyxiation, whereas women are more likely to overdose on medications or drugs.

Common suicide methods in men include:

  • Firearms
  • Hanging
  • Asphyxiation, or suffocation
  • Jumping
  • Moving objects
  • Sharp objects
  • Vehicle Exhaust Gas

In general, women tend to use a greater variety of suicide methods than men. Common suicide methods in women include:

  • Self-poisoning (women four times as likely as men to die from drug poisoning)
  • Exsanguination (bleeding out from a cut such as a "slit" wrist)
  • Drowning
  • Hanging (one study found that men and women are both just as likely to die by hanging)
  • Firearms (women were 73% less likely to use firearms as men)

Other Differences in Suicide Methods

There are differences in suicide methods beyond those between the sexes.

One study found that:

  • Men who were married were more likely to use firearms, whereas men who were unmarried were more likely to die by hanging
  • Unmarried women were less likely to hang themselves than married women
  • Men with a history of substance abuse were more likely to die by self-poisoning 
  • Prior substance use had no impact on self-poisoning as a suicide method among women
  • For both men and women, the likelihood of poisoning was significantly higher among those taking psychiatric medications

Methods such as an overdose are more common in those who have been depressed for some time.

Firearms, in contrast, appear to be more common when people are reacting to acute situations. This would support current recommendations to remove guns from a home in the setting of an acute mental health crisis.

According to the CDC's Data & Statistics Fatal Injury Report for 2017, firearms accounted for 50.6% of all suicide deaths in 2017.

Differences in the Severity of Suicide Attempts

Even when the same method of suicide is used by men and women, attempts by men tend to be more serious and severe (60% more severe, at least statistically speaking).

Men who attempt suicide and survive are more likely than women who attempt and survive suicide to require intensive care hospitalization.

With regard to suicide by firearms, research has found that men are more likely to shoot themselves in the head (which is more likely to be fatal) than women. The reason for this has been debated but could be related to less intent to die in women. Some have suggested that this could be, however, that cosmetic fears in women, should the attempt fail, play a role in the location of a gunshot.

Researchers have explored the possibility that suicidal intent may play a role in this discrepancy. One study found that females tend to exhibit less serious intent to die than do males.

Prior Suicide Attempts Before Suicide

As noted above, both men and women who have a history of a prior suicide attempt are at risk for suicide. Over half of women who die by suicide have a previous attempt, whereas less than half of men who commit suicide have a prior attempt.

Suicide Warning Signs

Regardless of gender differences in suicide, everyone should be aware of the risk factors and warning signs of suicide. If you or a loved one have a history of depression, you may wish to create a suicide safety plan as well.

Differences in Self-Harming Behavior

While men are more likely to die as a result of a suicide attempt, women are more likely to engage in what is known as deliberate self-harm (DSH) or self-injury. DSH involves any sort of self-harming behavior, whether or not the intent is to commit suicide.

Research suggests that people who use self-injury are not usually trying to kill themselves, though sometimes they do. While many people associate self-harm with a desire for attention, it is not and is often done in private. Examples of DSH include non-lethal drug overdoses and self-injury such as cutting. While suicide may not be the motivation, many people who engage in self-harm may be having suicidal thoughts and may also go too far in their self-harming behavior resulting in unintentional suicide.

Research has found some key risk factors for suicide in those who engage in self-harming behavior include:

  • Previous episodes of self-harm
  • Suicidal intent
  • Physical health problems
  • Male gender

Gender Differences in Depression and Suicide

It's thought that major depression occurs in roughly half of people who commit suicide, both male, and female, and there are differences in this regard as well. Women are twice as likely as men to carry a diagnosis of major depression, though, as noted, completed suicide occurs much more often in men than women. It's also known that women are more likely to seek treatment for depression than men.

Differences in Suicide Rates Among LGBT Individuals

Research has found that suicidal thoughts and rates are much higher among those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and non-binary. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that LGB youth are three times more likely to think about suicide and five times more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual youth. 

A U.S. study found that 40% of transgender adults have attempted suicide.

One of the first studies to look at how gender identity impact suicide rates found that among teens, trans males face the highest risk of suicide, with 50% reporting a suicide attempt in the past year. Nonbinary teens had the second-highest suicide risk, with 42% reporting some type of self-harm in the previous year.

For comparison, the study found that suicidal behaviors were reported in less than 10% cisgender males (that is, those whose gender identity matches their biological sex) and 17% of cisgender females.

Rejection and bullying have both been implicated in the increased suicide rates among LGBT individuals. Research has shown that young people who are rejected by their families due to their identity or preferences are 8.4 times more likely to attempt suicide than those who have more family support and acceptance.

A study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that every incident of LGBT harassment or abuse, both verbal and physical, more than doubles the risk of self-harming behaviors.

Research suggests that taking steps to facilitate friendships between LGBT and heterosexual students may help reduce these rates. A study conducted by researchers from the University of British Columbia found that simply having a gay-straight alliance (GSA) at school reduced suicidal thoughts and attempts among all students, regardless of their sexual orientation. The researchers suggest having a long-standing GSA reduces homophobic bullying and improves student mental health whether they are gay or straight.

Why Are There Gender Differences With Suicide?

A number of different theories have been suggested to account for the gender differences in suicide:

Differences in gender roles and expectations may account for some of the differences in suicidal behavior. The gender stereotype of men being "tough" and "strong" does not allow for failure, perhaps causing men to select a more violent and lethal method of suicide; while women, who are allowed (in social acceptance terms) the option to express weakness and ask for help, may use suicide attempts as a means of expressing their desire for assistance Some researchers have suggested that women may be more reluctant to engage in a serious suicide attempt because the act is seen as violent and 'masculine.'

Some theories suggest that females may be more likely to attempt suicide at an earlier point when faced with psychological distress or illness than males, less out of an intent to die and more out of an attempt to communicate distress.

Another theory is that women are more likely to take others into consideration, and looking at suicide in the context of relationships may give women less incentive to want to die. Others have wondered if perhaps women feel freer to change their minds following a decision to attempt suicide.

Experts suggest that gender might also influence what methods a person is familiar with or has ready access to use. For example, men are generally more likely than women to be familiar with firearms and use them in their daily lives, and thus they might choose this method more often.

While certain generalizations can be made about male and female suicide behavior, it should be noted that general tendencies cannot be taken as absolute guidelines for suicide prevention efforts. Suicide attempts should always be taken seriously and not dismissed as attention-seeking behavior, nor should it be assumed that only persons of a particular gender will use any given method.

It is important to note that more research is needed to better understand gender differences in suicide and to develop gender-targeted intervention strategies.

If You are a Parent

If you are a parent, you may have lost sleep hearing about the risk of suicide in young people. Despite prevention and intervention programs aimed to help teens who are considering suicide, determining if a teenage child is suicidal can be very difficult.

In addition to learning about the warning signs of suicide in adults, take a moment to learn about the common warning signs for suicide in teenagers, and become familiar with some of the common myths about teen suicide.

If you are having thoughts of suicide, talk to your doctor or contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. The Trevor Project offers help and resources for LGBTQ youth and can be reached at 1-866-488-7386. Call 911 if you or another person is in immediate danger.

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