We all know that our current social construction of masculinity fails men in a lot of ways, but it doesn't just stop there. According to new research, the high suicide rate among white men might be due in large part to cultural ideals about masculinity which leave men ill-equipped to deal with the aging process. In other words, there is now scientific evidence to support the idea that hyper-masculinity doesn't just fail men — it can also kill them.
It isn't just masculinity, either. Although men have a higher suicide rate than women, elderly, non-Hispanic white men also have a higher rate of suicide than men from other racial and ethnic backgrounds, despite having more economic resources than elderly men of color, and better physical health than elderly women. So what gives? Silvia Sara Canetto, a researcher at Colorado State University's Department of Psychology who has been studying this phenomenon, says that the cause likely has something to do with the way masculinity and privilege make white men ill-suited to adjusting to elderly life.
In a recent study published in the journal Men and Masculinities , Cenetto writes that although white men "are exposed to less severe aging adversities than older women or ethnic-minority men," it's likely that "they may be more impacted by them" — Mainly because a lifetime of social privilege and the emotionally repressive dictates of masculinity make these men less able to adjust. Things like "rigidity in coping and in sense of self," which are "consistent with hegemonic-masculinity scripts," may play a large role in individual cases, and on a larger level, "the indignities-of-aging and the masculinity-of-suicide scripts may be cultural influences."
In a lot of ways, this makes perfect sense. Our society, from politics to business to social norms, is systematically biased in favor of white men, and so naturally society primes white men to see themselves as powerful, as leaders, as dominant and capable and in control — none of which is conducive to accepting and adjusting to the aging process. It's easy to see how getting old thus becomes a threat to white men's sense of self. And since hyper-masculinity ideals devalue emotions and by extension emotional intelligence and healthy coping mechanisms, elderly men may not have the tools necessary to adjust.
Really, this is just one of many ways in which the current social construction of masculine identity is harmful — to both men and women. Toxic masculinity and hyper-masculine ideals limit men's self-expression, discourage men from certain careers, contribute to violence against women, make it harder for men to seek help when they are assaulted or abused, and play a large role in the violence affecting American society in general. And this stuff starts getting ingrained early — meaning that by the time you've reach old age, it's hard to shake off, and that can have deadly effects.
According to Canetto's work, there is nothing about elderly white men that makes them somehow inherently more prone to suicide. In fact, in other countries, other demographic groups are more prone to attempt or complete suicide — in China, for instance, women of reproductive age are most at risk. However, her work does suggest that cultural scripts can be a big part in placing people at risk for suicide, and in our country, the cultural scripts around racial and gender privilege can have a devastating impact.
Fortunately, that also means that by changing the culture and shifting perceptions of what it means to be a man, particularly a white man, in today's America, we can have an impact on these sorts of problems. So that's something to hope for.
Resources for suicide prevention among older adults can be found here.
The number for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline (US) is: 1 (800) 273-8255