Here’s a chart I discovered recently that concerns me:
It shows a steady increase in the male teen suicide rate, while the suicide rate for female teens remains flat.
On my Twitter feed today, this article from Sophia Graham of the Mental Foundation responds to Mark Dawson’s editorial suggesting that increasing male suicide is linked to their relative less prominent role in society.
One explanation for this disproportion may be the growing empowerment of women and their increasing role in society.
Is an unfortunate side effect that men feel less secure, less sure of their place in a world where they were once more dominant?
Perhaps it reflects the work pressures on men – still usually the main bread-winner. Working males make up a significant proportion of the grim statistics.
Sophia is critical of Mark’s editorial. The headline reads ‘A response to the newspaper editor who thinks feminism may cause male suicide’ though Mark never mentions the term ‘feminism’.
Sophia makes a few points I take issue with:
- Male suicide rates have always been higher than female suicide rates.
- This is true –
but male suicide rates are also growing. She doesn’t acknowledge this.Correction: in New Zealand suicide rates appear to be on the decline. The excel spread sheet linked from here from Stats NZ shows a steady increase of suicide rate of both women and men of about 50% from 1985 to 1998 and then a steady decline since then.
- This is true –
- She says his comments are dangerous. She makes the argument that Mark’s article contributes to the traditional culture of male stoicism.
- I fail to see how this is the case. Mark’s article is precisely highlighting that one aspect of traditional masculinity is seeing men’s value as an economic provider, and that their changing role in society may lead men feeling disempowered and turning to suicide as a result.
- Instead it’s Sophia that is reinforcing this gender norm, by shutting down an attempt to encourage looking at the the changing definition of masculinity and how that’s affecting men today. Sophia shames men for talking about their response to currently defined masculinity by labeling it as dangerous and anti-woman’s empowerment.
- She makes the point that ” male suicide rates are tied more closely to economic pressures than changing social roles”.
- The source she cites does indeed mention the decline of traditional male industries as a factor in male suicide. However, the same source also makes a point that traditional conceptions of masculinity also play a role – one of those expressions of masculinity being providing for the family, especially amongst working class men.
- She says that he shows a lack of compassion towards females who live with depression or anxiety.
- Mark’s article was specifically talking about male suicide. Sophia’s criticism is a ‘whataboutism’ argument. Given that in New Zealand 3/4 suicides are men, it make sense to pay special attention to why men are doing it.
The one thing I would criticise about Mark’s article is where he says
[suicide is] one area where women don’t want gender equality
this is a cheap shot and is a broad generalisation that serves to paint an uncaring picture of women.
Overall – this was an incredibly disappointing response from the Mental Health Foundation. Instead of congratulating Mark for starting a discussion about this one particular aspect of mental health – she attempts to shut it down by labeling it as dangerous.
The Mental Health Foundation is an organisation that I respect and support, but this is one case of I think them doing exactly the wrong thing.
Sophia ends the piece with
I acknowledge your editorial contained some valid and interesting remarks on the how the pressures men face can contribute to suicide. It’s a shame these were left unexplored.
and to be fair – Mark’s article was quite short, all he’s really doing is saying ‘this is an issue that men are uniquely facing, and we need to do more to focus on it’.
But instead of taking advantage of a teachable moment – and articulating just what the factors and trends of male suicide are, she instead just the discussion as dangerous – without, in my opinion, really conclusively refuting it.
So here I go to further expound what I think Mark was getting at.
Sex objects vs success objects.
The term sex object or sexual objectification has been used in feminist discourse to describe how society reduces women’s value to society as their function to provide sexual gratification.
This has been frustrating to women, where they’ve felt that their potential contributions to business, science etc has been marginalized because of this.
Using the same lens to look at men’s roles in society – we can use the term ‘success object’.
That is – men’s value to society is a function of their ability to win, to be an economic provider.
In our historic society with traditional gender roles this was easier to achieve for the man – even a single low skilled worker’s pay was enough to support a family.
However in modern times average guy’s ability to get this kind of role has disappeared, while the expectation that he can do this remains.
Pointing this out isn’t an argument against female empowerment. It’s argument for redefining masculinity in the modern era – and that involves allowing men to say ‘I feel pressure to earn a lot of money so I can attract a mate’. Perhaps then we’ll get a conversation about what society values in men instead.
But shutting these conversations down as dangerous or disempowering to women is not the right way to go. That only causes feelings of male disempowerment to fester unseen.