From the Journals

Excessive masculinity linked to high suicide risk


Excessive masculinity is linked to a significantly increased risk for death by suicide in men, new research suggests.

In the first study to show this association, investigators found that men with high traditional masculinity (HTM) – a set of norms that includes competitiveness, emotional restriction, and aggression – were about two and half times more likely to die by suicide than their counterparts without HTM. The finding underscores the “central role” of gender in suicide death.

“We found that high-traditional-masculinity men were 2.4 times more likely to die by suicide than those who were not [of] high traditional masculinity. We feel this is a significant finding, and one that’s very rare to have evidence for,” study investigator Daniel Coleman, PhD, said in an interview.

“Our other findings are also important and interesting,” added Dr. Coleman, associate professor of social service at Fordham University, New York. “One was that high traditional masculinity was associated with a host of other significant risk factors for suicide death. So not only does high traditional masculinity add to the risk of suicide death, it also may have indirect effects through other variables, such as acting-out behavior.”

The study was published online Feb. 12 in JAMA Psychiatry (doi: 10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2019.4702).

First look

In the United States, death by suicide is 3.5 times more common in men than in women. Several potential drivers may explain this phenomenon; one plausible factor may be high levels of what the investigators describe as “traditional masculinity.”

Interestingly, previous studies suggest that HTM men experience suicidal thoughts to a greater degree than do other persons (Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol. 2017 Mar;52[3]:319-27). Nevertheless, the potential influence of HTM and suicide mortality has not been examined before now.

The study is a secondary analysis of the longitudinal Add Health (the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health) study, which began in 1995 and followed 20,745 adolescents through young adulthood. Not only did that study show a direct association between measures of HTM and death by suicide, but it also corroborated the connection between HTM and other risk factors for suicide revealed in earlier research (Suicide Life Threat Behav. 2016 Apr;46[2]:191-205).

To tease out this relationship, Dr. Coleman and colleagues used data from the nationally representative Add Health study. That earlier research concluded that nine Add Health variables were associated with suicide; these included suicide by a family member, being expelled from school, running away from home, using a weapon, being of white race, a past history of smoking, being in a serious fight in the past year, delinquency, and fighting.

In the current study, the researchers hypothesized that HTM would be associated with these nine variables, in addition to suicide, depression, and gun access.

In the Add Health study, the adolescents were followed over time. In the current analysis, the researchers matched data from that study with death records from the National Death Index from 2014. Death by suicide was defined using National Death Index procedures.

The investigators then used an established procedure for scoring gender-typed attitudes and behaviors. As part of this, a single latent probability variable for identifying oneself as male was generated from 16 gender-discriminating variables.

Participants who were found to score at least a 73% probability of identifying as male (greater than 1 standard deviation above the mean) were classified as HTM.

“There’s been a lot of speculating about masculinity as a risk factor for male suicides,” Dr. Coleman said. “But it’s very difficult to study suicide death and something psychosocial like masculinity. So this was an attempt to fill that gap and test the hypothesis that’s being discussed quite a bit.”

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