Why Older White Men Are More Likely to Die of Suicide

In the United States, older men of European descent (so-called white men) have significantly higher suicide rates than any other demographic group. For example, 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.

Behind these facts there is a cultural story, not just individual journeys of psychological pain and despair. Colorado State University’s Silvia Sara Canetto has spent a large portion of her research career seeking to uncover cultural stories of suicide.

A professor in the College of Natural Sciences’ Department of Psychology, Canetto adds a new chapter to that story in an article recently published in the journal Men and Masculinities. Among her findings are that older white men have higher suicide rates, yet 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 have more economic resources than ethnic minority older men, and than older women across ethnicities.

White older men, however, may be less psychologically equipped to deal with the normal challenges of aging, likely because of their privilege up until late adulthood, Canetto asserts.

An important factor in white men’s psychological brittleness and vulnerability to suicide once they reach late life, Canetto says, may be dominant scripts of masculinity, aging and suicide. Particularly pernicious for this group may be the belief that suicide is a masculine response to “the indignities of aging.” This is a script that implicitly justifies, and even glorifies, suicide among men.

As illustrations, in her article Canetto examines two famous cases. Eastman Kodak founder George Eastman 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 asserts. “The dominant story was that their suicide was a rational, courageous, powerful choice.”

Image shows an older man holding his head in despair.
White older men may be less psychologically equipped to deal with the normal challenges of aging, likely because of their privilege up until late adulthood. Image is for illustrative purposes only.

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 points out that older men are not the most suicide-prone group everywhere in the world. For example, in China, women of reproductive age are the demographic group with the highest suicide mortality.

Among the implications of Canetto’s research is that attention to cultural scripts of suicide offers new ways of understanding and preventing suicide. As cultural stories, the “indignities of aging” suicide script as well as the belief that suicide is a white man’s powerful response to aging can and should be challenged, and changed, she says.

About this psychology research

Source: Anne Ju Manning – Colorado State University
Image Source: The image is in the public domain
Original Research: Absract for “Suicide: Why Are Older Men So Vulnerable?” by Silvia Sara Canetto in Men and Masculinitiesy. Published online November 20 2015 doi:10.1177/1097184X15613832


Suicide: Why Are Older Men So Vulnerable?

Globally, older adults have higher suicide rates than other age-groups. However, it is predominantly men who die of suicide in late adulthood, with variability by culture. In the United States, European-descent men are overrepresented among suicide decedents. In this article, theories and evidence about aging adversities, individual dispositions, and cultural influences were evaluated for their potential to explain the suicide vulnerability of European-descent older men. Aging adversities were not found to account for these men’s suicide proneness. European-descent older men are exposed to less severe aging adversities than older women or ethnic-minority men—though they may be more impacted by them. Rigidity in coping and in sense of self, consistent with hegemonic-masculinity scripts, emerged as individual-level clues. The indignities-of-aging and the masculinity-of-suicide scripts may be cultural influences. This analysis shows how consideration of masculinities and suicide scripts expands our understanding of older men’s suicide as well as, likely, our tools for its prevention.

“Suicide: Why Are Older Men So Vulnerable?” by Silvia Sara Canetto in Men and Masculinities. Published online November 20 2015 doi:10.1177/1097184X15613832

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  1. Interesting research finding and one that for me, intuitively, seems the correct one. Indeed, the commonsense one.
    Europeans and those of European decent are a very privileged set of the world’s population and so shouldn’t, in my opinion, be as prone to suicide as those from other, poorer groups but generally as “white men” we are indeed, in my opinion, brought up to believe that we are – and must be – in control of our lives and that this is the quintessence, the qiddity, of our free will. Remove that and to many life appears simply not worth living. Add this to the petty humiliations associated with old age, the isolation and loneliness that is all too frequently the lot of old people, and the chronic aches and pains and general infirmity that usually accompany aging, and you have the perfect recipe for suicide.

  2. ..while all that may be true, documentation also shows most suicides in the US are done by gun, which could be that is by ‘availability’ as is country ‘s obsession with owning them. Had fun with friend buying a black Turbo Porshe and thinking about it all the time, being almost ready to do it… so I said to him as if speaking for him: you mean, ‘I want it now ‘ And ‘I want it now’.. right? and he said yes. Of course it was all posible only by the fact that he had available resources and have one. Same is with guns.. at the right time and with the right ‘mind set’.. there it is, grab and do it ‘now’. If there was only knife..aw ney.. too messy, not quick enough so he keeps on living as if by default..

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