Older Caucasian men have significantly higher suicide rates than any other demographic group in the United States. There lies a cultural story behind this fact, not just one of individual pain and despair, according to the research of Colorado State University social psychologist Dr. Silvia Sara Canetto.
Canetto has spent a large portion of her career investigating suicide as it relates to culture. Her research shows that while older white men have higher suicide rates, they experience fewer burdens associated with aging.
For example, they are less likely to experience widowhood and have better physical health and fewer disabilities than older women. They also have more economic resources than ethnic minority older men, and than older women across all ethnicities.
It appears then that white older men may be less psychologically equipped to deal with the normal challenges of aging, most likely because of their privilege up until late adulthood, Canetto asserts. 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.
A large contributor to white men’s psychological fragility and vulnerability toward suicide once they reach late life, Canetto said, may be dominant scripts of masculinity, aging, and suicide.
Particularly harmful for this group may be the idea that suicide is a masculine response to “the indignities of aging.” This belief has the tendency to justify, or even glorify, suicide among men.
Canetto examines two famous cases in her new article published in the journal Men and Masculinities. George Eastman, the founder of Eastman Kodak, died of suicide in 1932, at age 77. 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 said. “The dominant story was that their suicide was a rational, courageous, powerful choice.”
However, Canetto’s research challenges the notion that high suicide rates are inevitable among white older men. As additional evidence that suicide in this population is culturally determined, and thus preventable, Canetto pointed out that older men are not the most suicide-prone group in the world. For example, in China, women of reproductive age are the demographic group with the highest suicide deaths.
This type of research is important because when we pay close attention to the cultural scripts of suicide, we can better understand and prevent suicide. In conclusion, the cultural belief that suicide is a white man’s powerful response to aging can and should be challenged, and changed, Canetto said.
Source: Colorado State University