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Ask the Mental Health Expert Archives 2001-2004

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Male vs. Female Suicide

Q.If depression is the main cause of suicides and women experience depression at a larger rate than men, why do the statistics show that more men actually commit suicide compared to the rate of suicide attempts by women (4:1)?

A. The rates of completed suicide are, indeed, much higher among men than among women, by about 3-4 times. However, women attempt suicide more often than men, consistent with the much higher rates of (unipolar) major depression in women (about twice as frequent as in men). By the way, rates of bipolar disorder are actually about equal for men and women. Women are also more likely to engage in various degrees of deliberate self-harm (wrist cutting, burning, etc.) than men, according to some studies.

This behavior is not necessarily suicidal, in the sense of reflecting a wish to die. But then-most people who attempt suicide do not really wish to die. Most, in fact, are clinically depressed. Historically, the higher rates of completed suicide among men (unfortunately, sometimes referred to as successful suicide) probably relate to the more lethal means used by men; e.g., guns as opposed to overdosing on pills.

In contexts where both men and women have easy access to lethal drugs and know how to use them, suicide rates are similar for men and women; e.g., rates of completed suicide among female physicians are similar to those of their male colleagues--and, sadly, higher than rates among women in the general population. (Suicide rates are also higher in other professions with easy access to lethal drugs, such as pharmacists and veterinary doctors). The bottom line: the diagnosis and rapid treatment of depression is crucial in bringing down suicide rates for both men and women.

March 2001

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