In 1920, the female life expectancy in the United States was one year longer than for men. Half a century later, that gender gap had grown to 7.6 years. Over the next few decades, the difference shrank to 4.8 years. But, over just the past two years, while women’s life expectancy has remained steady, men’s declined, and the gender gap has crept back up to five years.
Despite numerous advances in medical science, men continue to die from nine of the top 10 causes of death at younger ages and in greater numbers than women. Within the broader men’s health crisis, there is one area where differences between male and female mortality and morbidity are especially stark: mental health, the most visible manifestation of which is suicide.
Across all ages and ethnicities, American men commit suicide at far higher rates than women. According to the most recent Centers for Disease Control data, between the ages of 15 and 64, roughly 3.5 times more men than women commit suicide. From 65 to 74, male suicides outnumber females by more than 4:1.
One sub-population that’s profoundly affected by the epidemic of male suicides is the military. Historically, service members were less likely than their civilian counterparts to take their own lives. But since 2001, more active duty service members (including Reserve/Guard) have killed themselves than have died in combat.
Those numbers are dwarfed by the number of veterans who complete suicide. According to the Military Times, veterans account for a total of 14 percent of all adult suicides in the U.S., even though only eight percent of the population has ever served.
The alarming disparity in suicides is undoubtedly driven by equally alarming disparities in the underlying mental health conditions that lead to suicide itself, including depression and anxiety, psychosis and substance abuse. In fact, nowhere is the connection between suicide and an underlying mental health condition more obvious than with substance abuse.
Medical providers, members of the public health community, community organizations, politicians, and the media have collectively been unable (or unwilling) to acknowledge the massive scope of the mental health issues that affect men. As a result, tens of thousands of American men and boys are dying and suffering from what many experts believe are preventable or treatable behavioral and mental health issues.
The effects of this collective mismanagement of mental health issues in men and boys extend into nearly every aspect of American society and have broad implications for the ways we provide (or don’t provide) preventive mental health services to our fathers, sons, brothers, partners and friends. The Affordable Care Act, for example, provides girls and women with annual, free, well-woman visits, which include mental health screenings. No such coverage exists for boys and men.
At the very least, the lack of adequate mental health care negatively impacts men’s and boys’ academic endeavors and achievements, their productivity in the workplace, the overall quality of their family life, their ability to care for their children and spouse or partner, and their level of community engagement and the contributions they make to the social capital of their communities and our nation.
So what can we do about the male mental health crisis? First, most experts agree that in order to help boys and men manage the behavioral health and mental health issues, particularly those that are inextricably linked to violence, we need male-focused tools, programs, social support systems and clinical care,
We need this care not only in primary care providers’ offices, but also in our schools, work environments, social support networks, and community organizations, both on the hyper-local and national levels.
Second, rather than criticize “toxic masculinity,” we need to celebrate fathers and other male role models. From a very young age, boys grow up hearing that “big boys don’t cry,” “play through it,” and “man up.” Those powerful messages keep boys and men from recognizing that they need help and from reaching out to get that help — especially with regard to mental health issues.
Fathers and other adult male role models can help boys and young men understand that expressing emotions and asking for help are signs of strength, not weakness, and that caring and nurturing are far better ways of showing you’re a man than committing senseless acts of violence.
Armin Brott writes for the Men’s Health Network, an international nonprofit organization whose mission is to reach men, boys, and their families where they live, work, play, and pray with health awareness messages and tools, screening programs, educational materials, advocacy opportunities, and patient navigation. Men can learn more about their health through MHN’s online resource center, www.MensHealthResourceCenter.com.