Despite Fewer Social Burdens, White Older US Men More Vulnerable To Suicide

Silvia Sara Canetto, Ph.D., Professor Faculty in the Department of Psychology, and Affiliate Faculty in the Center for Women's Studies and Gender Research, Department of Ethnic Studies, and in the Human Development and Family Studies Department Colorado State University

Dr. Silvia Sara Canetto

MedicalResearch.com Interview with:
Silvia Sara Canetto, Ph.D., Professor
Faculty in the Department of Psychology, and
Affiliate Faculty in the
Center for Women’s Studies and Gender Research,
Department of Ethnic Studies, and in the
Human Development and Family Studies Department
Colorado State University 

Medical Research: What is the background for this study?

Dr. Canetto: In the United States, older men of European descent (so called white men) have significantly higher suicide rates than any other demographic group. For example, their suicide rates are significantly higher than those of older men of African, Latino or Indigenous descent, as well as relative to older women across ethnicities.

Behind these facts there is a cultural story, not just individual journeys of psychological pain and despair. Colorado State University’s Silvia Sara Canetto has spent a large portion of her research career seeking to uncover cultural stories of suicide.

A professor in the College of Natural Sciences’ Department of Psychology, Canetto adds a new chapter to that story in an article recently published in the journal Men and Masculinities. The article features a critical review of theories and research on suicide among older men.

Medical Research: What are the main findings?

Dr. Canetto: Among the findings of her review are that white, older men have higher suicide rates, yet fewer burdens associated with aging. For example, white older men are less likely to experience widowhood than older women. They also have better physical health and fewer disabilities than older women. They have more economic resources than ethnic minority older men, and than older women across ethnicities.

White older men, however, may be less psychologically equipped to deal with the normal challenges of aging, likely because of their privilege up until late adulthood, Canetto asserts.

Another important factor in white men’s psychological brittleness and vulnerability to suicide, once they reach late life, Canetto says, may be dominant scripts of masculinity, aging and suicide. Particularly pernicious for this group may be the belief that suicide is a masculine response to “the indignities of aging.” This is a script that implicitly justifies, and even glorifies suicide among men.

As illustrations, in her article Canetto examines two famous cases of suicide by older white men. At age 77, Eastman Kodak founder George Eastman died of suicide in 1932. His biographer said Eastman was “unprepared and unwilling to face the indignities of old age.” Writer Hunter S. Thompson, who killed himself in 2005 at age 67, was described by friends as having triumphed over “the indignities of aging.” Both suicides were explained in the press through scripts of conventional “white” masculinity, Canetto asserts. “The dominant story was that their suicide was a rational, courageous, powerful choice.”

Medical Research: What should clinicians and patients take away from your report?

Dr. Canetto: Canetto’s research findings challenge the notion that high suicide rates are inevitable among white older adult men. As additional evidence that suicide in this population is culturally determined, and thus preventable, Canetto points out that older men are not the most suicide-prone group everywhere in the world. For example, in China, women of reproductive age are the demographic group with the highest suicide mortality.

In conclusion, the findings of Dr. Canetto’s research suggest that, in the United States, older white male suicide may be enabled by its cultural acceptability and by its masculine connotation. White men who rigidly and tenaciously abide to hegemonic-masculinity scripts, particularly the independent or the macho scripts, may be both least equipped for the challenges of aging, and most vulnerable to the indignities-of-aging suicide script. White men may be particularly likely to act on the indignities-of-aging suicide script due to the connection, in European American culture, between masculinity and physical vigor, control, and autonomy. Take away messages for clinicians and mental health professionals are that

1. Certain dimensions of the white man masculinity script (e.g., the being-in-control dimension) are dangerous to men’s health and coping, and may threaten their survival; and

2. Initiatives (including psychotherapy) aimed at preventing older white men’s suicides and supporting their well-being should include education about the dysfunctional aspects of white man masculinity script, and about positive ways of masculinity.

Medical Research: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?

Dr. Canetto: According to Canetto, future research should examine aging, masculinity and suicide scripts in communities with low rates of older adult male suicide, for example, in African American communities. She speculates that African Americans would not view suicide as a masculine response to the challenges of aging, as is the case for European Americans. Documenting beliefs and attitudes about older adult suicide in communities with low rates of older adult male suicide would provide information about possible suicide protective beliefs and attitudes within those communities. It would also point to constructive beliefs and attitudes about masculinity, aging and suicide to be included in educational and treatment programs aimed at preventing suicide among older adult men of European descent.

In conclusion, the implication of Canetto’s research is that attention to cultural scripts of suicide offers new ways of understanding and preventing suicide. As cultural stories, the “indignities of aging” suicide script as well as the belief that suicide is a white man’s powerful response to aging, can and should be challenged, and changed, she says.

Citation:

S. Canetto. Suicide: Why Are Older Men So Vulnerable?
Men and Masculinities, 2015; DOI: 10.1177/1097184X15613832

Dr. Silvia Sara Canetto (2016). Despite Fewer Social Burdens, White Older US Men More Vulnerable To Suicide 

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