Suicide rates are dropping around the world. That is great news. The anomoly, however, is the United States, where suicide rates continue to rise. The increase is especially acute among white, middle-aged men and in rural areas.
Rising suicide rates, coupled with widespread substance use disorder, which has also taken a heavy toll in rural areas, have led to decreased life expectency for American men. While the drop is small, it is concerning.
Increasingly, American men are succumbing to what have been dubbed “diseases of despair,” which include alcohol and drug use and suicide.
Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton tied the rise of these diseases to the economic stagnation in the U.S. Diminishing job opportunities and low wages for white men with limited education are setting them up to be worse off than previous generations, they warned.
In addition, a startling number of men are missing from the workforce. Fifteen percent of Maine men ages 25 to 54 find themselves are either not working or looking for work, according to the Maine Department of Labor’s Center for Workforce Research and Information.
Beyond serious quality of life question for many men, this should be a serious concern to a state that already has a shrinking workforce that is holding back economic development.
Public health efforts, such as increased support for substance abuse treatment and tighter restrictions on prescription opioids, are helpful. But, from a broader perspective, there are simpler steps that can help.
First, we must understand how a tradition of telling men to be tough and to suck it up is putting many of them at grave risk.
Portland Press Herald Editorial Page Editor Greg Kesich wrote a must-read column about men’s mental health last month. It is well worth revisiting.
First, the shocking numbers: “Men are four times more likely to die from suicide than women, and the rate is the highest among working-age men, ages 25 to 54, who kill themselves at a rate that’s twice that of the population as a whole,” Kesich wrote.
“Combine that with slow self-destruction of alcohol and drug abuse that’s more common among men, and the outward-directed violence that’s almost exclusively a male phenomenon, and it’s clear that there are a lot of people suffering from problems that aren’t being dealt with,” he added.
The simple solution? Men need to ask for help. Both Kesich and we understand that this is easier said than done. But we must do the hard work of helping men understand that they are not alone. That others care and are willing to help. That seeking help is not a sign of weakness.
“It’s not surprising that Maine, with a culture that exalts self sufficiency and despises complaining, is seeing the effects. We have one of the highest suicide rates in the nation, involving the groups you would expect, led by working-age men,” Kesich wrote. He notes that easy access to guns likely worsens the problem, while acknowledging the legitimate caution from mental health experts that people in crisis may not seek treatment if their guns could potentially be taken away.
Maine’s new “red flag” law — a compromise negotiated through conversations with a wide variety of law enforcement, gun rights, gun control, health care and criminal justice groups — strikes an important balance and can be an important tool to help reduce suicides, the most common form of gun violence. But that is only a piece of the puzzle.
“Ultimately,” Kesich wrote, “getting help is what will make a difference.”
To reach a suicide prevention hotline, call 888-568-1112 or 800-273-TALK (8255), or visit www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, call 211 or visit www.211maine.org.