Gender Differences in Suicide - Methods, Deaths, and Self-Harm

Differences Between Men and Women in Suicide and Suicidal Behaviors

Gender Differences in Suicide
Are their gender differences in suicide and the methods men and women use?. Ismail Akin Bostanci/Getty Images

Gender Differences in Suicide

There are several gender differences with regard to suicide, involving differences in both successful suicides and suicidal behaviors for men and women.

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 successful suicides occurring in the United States and around the world each year.

Gender Differences Suicide Attempt and the Risk of Death from Suicide

In reviewing suicide statistics it's been found that women are roughly three times more likely to attempt suicide, though men are around three times more likely to die from suicide.

From this information it is clear that there are other important differences between the sexes with regard to suicide that we will address.

There are also differences in the risk of suicide between men and women based on previous attempt. Around 62 percent of women who are successful in suicide have made a previous attempt, but when it comes to men, 62 percent 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 up front. The differences in attempts and successful suicides in women has 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 Between Men and Women

One of the most important reasons for the difference between suicide attempts and successful 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)
  • Drowing
  • Hanging (one study found that men and women are both just as likely to die by hanging)
  • Firearms (women were 73 percent less likely to use firearms as men)

Other Differences in Suicide Methods

There are differences in suicide methods beyond those between the sexes. Men who were married were more likely to use firearms, whereas men who were unmarried were more likely to die by hanging. There are differences which depend on whether a suicide is conducted at home or away from home as well. Youth, likely due to access of methods, have a high proportion of dying by hanging. In addition, methods can vary depending on situations.

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.

Differences in Severity of Suicide Attempts in Men and Women

Even when the same method of suicide is used by men and women, attempts by men tend to be more serious and severe (60 percent 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, 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. It could be, however, that cosmetic fears in women, should the attempt fail, play a role in the location of a gunshot.

Prior Suicide Attempts Before Suicide in Men and Women

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 are successful in suicide have a previous attempt, whereas less than half of men who commit suicide have a prior attempt.

Differences in Self-Harming Behavior Between Men and Women

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-mutilation. DSH involves any sort of self-harming behavior, whether or not the intent is to commit suicide.

Research suggests that people who use self mutilation 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.

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, successful 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.

Why Are There Gender Differences With Suicide?

Differences in gender roles and expectations may account for some of the differences in suicide 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 postulated that women are more likely to take others into consideration, and looking at suicide in the context of a 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.

Suicide Warning Signs

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

If You are a Parent

If you are a parent, you may have lost sleep hearing about the risk of suicide in our young people. Thankfully this is being addressed, complete with posters telling adolescents to break the silence if they learn another student may be suicidal. Articles now abound which speak of teen cutting and self harm behaviors. Yet determining if a teenage child is suicidal may be very difficult among the normal angst of adolescence. 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 these myths about teen suicide.

Sources:

Callanan, V., and M. Davis. Gender Differences in Suicide Methods. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology. 2012. 47(6):857-69.

Chan, M., Bhatti, H., Meader, N. et al. Predicting Suicide Following Self-Harm: Systematic Review of Risk Factors and Risk Scales. British Journal of Psychiatry. 2016. 209(4):277-283.

Hamilton, E., and B. Klimes-Dougan. Gender Differences in Suicide Prevention Responses: Implications for Adolescents Based on an Illustrative Review of the Literature. International Journal of Research and Public Health. 2015. 12(3):2359-72.

Maddock, G., Carter, G., Murrell, E., Lewin, T., and A. Conrad. Distinguishing Suicidal from Non-Suicidal Deliberate Self-Harm Events in Women with Borderline Personality Disorder. Australia and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry. 2010. 44(6):574-82.

Mergi, R., Koburger, N., Heinrichs, K. et al. What Are Reasons for the Large Gender Differences in the Lethality of Suicidal Acts? An Epidemiological Analysis in Four European Countries. PLoS One. 2015. 10(7):e0129062.

Tsirigotis, K., Guszczynski, W., and M. Tsirigotis. Gender Differentiation in Methods of Suicide Attempts. Medical Science Monitor. 2011. 17(8):PH65-PH70.

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