There are myriad stories. People who were laughing an hour before they took their lives. People who were simply “not quite themselves”. People who had struggled with longterm depression. People who had a history of suicide in the family. Successful people who seemed to have everything to live for. They all decided to kill themselves. Official records say that in the UK in 2016, 4,508 men and 1,457 women died as a result of suicide, but some experts believe the true numbers may be as high as double that. Men appear particularly vulnerable: in fact, suicide is the leading cause of death in men under 50 in the UK, claiming more lives than car accidents, heart disease or cancer. If it were a new disease, suicide would surely prompt a national emergency.
The reasons so many men take their lives are mysterious and infinitely diverse – a complex web of social, psychological, biological and cultural pressures. But new scientific approaches are presenting unexpected avenues for disentangling the threads. Virtual reality experiments and artificial intelligence are revealing those most at risk and could even predict who is most likely to try and take their life. Meanwhile, theories of male ‘social perfectionism’ are throwing light on why men feel they have failed. Together, they offer the prospect of better prevention.
According to Prof Rory O’Connor, who runs the Suicidal Behaviour Research Lab at the University of Glasgow, changes in society are making men especially prone to the feelings of entrapment that seem to be a key driver to suicide as a means of escape. His lab works with suicide survivors in hospitals and other settings, and conducts studies in the lab to find links between suicide and psychological and social characteristics. Some recent work, for example, has examined pain sensitivity. There is already some evidence that one of the reasons more men kill themselves than women is simply that they carry it through more effectively, using more lethal means. Working with men and women who had attempted suicide in a hostel setting, O’Connor’s research supports this view. He found that men were less fearful about dying than women, and that men have greater ability to withstand the physical pain required to carry out more lethal methods of suicide.
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