By Devanik Saha
“Men are more vulnerable than women.”
“This country is biased against men.”
“More Men commit suicides than women.”
“Patriarchy affects men more than women. No one talks about suicides by married men, everyone talks only about housewives’ suicides.”
These are some of the arguments made by men rights activists and people opposed to feminism. So what is the reality? Are men more likely to commit suicide? Are they more oppressed than women? This article will explore the conundrum of male suicides in India and try to answer some of these questions, strictly through the lens of the data available to us.
I. The Data:
In 2015, 133,623 suicides in India were reported in India, of which 91,528 (68%) were by men, 42,088 were by women, according to data from National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB).
Suicides Reported in India (2015/ NCRB)
Within the category of women, housewives (22,293) accounted for 53% of the female victims (42,088). In the same year, as many as 91,528 men committed suicide — 23% were daily wage earners (20,409) followed by persons engaged in farming sector (11,584) and self-employed persons (11,124).
Of the 86,808 married persons who committed suicides in 2015, 64,534 (74%) were men, 26% women. However, of 28,344 suicides by married women, housewives accounted for 79% of them.
The data shows:
- More men than women are committing suicides. This trend holds true globally as well. For instance, in 2014, 76% of suicides in the United Kingdom were by men. However, women are thrice as likely to attempt suicide than men, according to the Indian Psychiatric Society as reported by the Times of India in September 2016. If this is true, macabre as it sounds, then it can be concluded the ‘success’ rate of suicides is more in men than women.
- As a specific demographic, more housewives commit suicides than any other group — contrary to public perception of farmers committing more suicides — across India, therefore, before caution must be taken before making sweeping generalisations.
- More married men are committing suicides than married women; 79% of married women were housewives. Therefore, comparing married men’s suicides to those of housewives is flawed analysis. However, the magnitude of marriage-related suicides (8%) is higher among females, as opposed to 0.8% for males, according to this study which analyzed NCRB data on suicides from 2001-2010.
More men than women are committing suicides in every country.
So why do men commit more suicides in India?
While NCRB data classifies reasons for suicides as family issues, debt, unemployment, etc, it doesn’t focus on the structural drivers which drive people to suicide.
II. Pressure of Conformity to Masculinity/ Masculine Ideals
A 2011 study on farmer suicides in Andhra Pradesh revealed that 48% cases of suicide are due to agrarian crisis, about 45% were due to non-agrarian reasons, and masculinity is one of these non-agrarian reasons. Causes included the shame felt due to the farmer’s inability to marry his daughter in a well-off family, pay dowry, inability to perform sexually, etc. It further found that farmers who had failed to commit suicide were the subject of ridicule and unable to bear the ‘disgrace’, and many attempted suicide again. “Masculinity as a culture has a strong ethos. It is because there is a culture of ridiculing men who have failed, or are unable to perform, that suicides take place,” said Professor Nilotpal Kumar, who conducted the study.
A critical fact which needs to be highlighted here is that 70% of suicide victims in India had an income of less than Rs 1 lakh per month.
Dr Vikram Patel, a renowned mental health expert, and a Professor at the Harvard Medical School agrees.
He tells The Health Collective, “Masculinity plays a role in male suicides in multiple ways, for e.g. as a barrier to acknowledgement of mental health problems and help seeking, as well as unique stressors related to being the bread-winner and the higher propensity for alcohol abuse, a key risk factor for suicide.”
With the role of masculinity vis. a vis. suicides, Martin Seager, a clinical psychologist in the UK, says “When a woman becomes unemployed, it is painful, but she doesn’t feel like she’s lost her sense of identity or femininity. When a man loses his work he feels he’s not a man.”
III. ‘Men More Impulsive than Women’
Multiple studies have concluded that men are more likely to be impulsive than women, which can drive them to suicides.
A 2016 neurological study conducted by a team of researchers from Auburn University in US found that there four traits defined as “the acquired capability for suicide” which men are more likely to have than women. The traits are fearlessness of death, pain tolerance, emotional stoicism and sensation seeking. People experiencing a desire to commit suicide will not do so without first losing their fear of dying and developing the necessary pain tolerance to endure making a lethal attempt.
Another study conducted in Oxford, England which studied 4415 patients admitted in a hospital concluded that following an episode of self-harm, men reported significantly higher levels of suicidal intent than women. While it cannot be conclusively said that men are more intent on dying, but this study points to that direction.
But Dr Patel believes otherwise.
“The higher rates of suicide mortality in men does not necessarily reflect a higher rate of suicidal behaviour; the higher death rates could be partly due to the use of more lethal methods such as hanging,”
However, Seager believes this very fact demonstrates that men have greater suicidal intent.
Multiple data and evidence clearly suggest that masculinity or the pressure of maintaining your masculine identity is a critical catalyst in male suicides. While more women than men attempt suicide but there is a complex interplay of factors which lead to a higher mortality among men. It is therefore important to note that issues of male suicides and female suicides are mutually exclusive and in terms of policy recommendations, there is absolutely no need to pit one against the other, which is currently the dominant discourse.
About the Author
Devanik Saha is an MA Gender & Development student at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex and a freelance journalist. His piece on the mental health crisis facing India is here. He tweets @devanikindia.
Views Expressed are Personal. Material on The Health Collective cannot substitute for professional mental health advice from a trained professional.
Editor’s note: If you or anyone you know has expressed suicidal thoughts please do reach out for help. Some helplines are here and there is also a helpline run by TISS Mumbai, the iCall helpline: 022-25521111