The Suicide Gender Gap Narrows

Something significant is happening in the culture to move so many more women to commit the ultimate act of self-destruction.

While males have long demonstrated much higher suicide rates than females, longitudinal research released last week by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported a narrowing of that gap. Although the suicide rate across nearly all age groups has surged more than 24 percent from 1999 through 2014, the age-adjusted increase was much greater for females (a 45 percent increase) than for males (a 16 percent increase). Males still have suicide rates more than three times that of females (20.7 per 100,000 population versus 5.8 per 100,000 population), but it is clear that something significant is happening in the culture to move so many more women to commit the ultimate act of self-destruction.

Suicide has traditionally been viewed as a deviant act because it contributes to a climate in which individual life is devalued. For this reason, the norms surrounding suicide have been powerful. Most societies have recognized that suicide is not simply an act of violence against the self, but a violent force in the lives of others as well—so much so that even the most isolated or troubled individual was legally forbidden to commit this act. In England, suicide was once regarded as so damaging to society that the penalty for attempting it was a cruel death. 

Today, the recent surge in suicide in the United States is mirrored in Britain and the Netherlands; and although there have been some declines in the suicide rates in Germany, France, and Belgium as migrant populations have influenced the overall rates, suicide rates in those countries were already much higher than those in the United States. Some sociologists have attempted to paint economic distress as the cause for the increase in suicide rates in the United States. Pointing to a 1-percent annual increase in suicide between 1999 and 2006, but then a 2-percent yearly increase after that, as the economy deteriorated and unemployment escalated, some sociologists suggest that this helps us understand the significant surge.

But most sociologists know that the causes of the increase in suicide are much more complex than economic stress. Since 1897, with the publication of Emile Durkheim’s monograph Suicide, sociologists have known that anomie, individualism, and low levels of community involvement help explain why people kill themselves. Durkheim found that affiliating with a religious denomination that makes demands on believers helped to immunize people from the attraction of suicide. Durkheim’s research demonstrated that Catholics were significantly less likely to commit suicide than Protestants. And, while some might suggest that it is fear of eternal damnation that keeps Catholics from killing themselves, research has shown that it is not the theology alone. Rather, ties to Catholic communities have historically kept the rates lower.

With religion on the decline—as evidenced by the growth of the “unaffiliated,” or what the Pew Research Center calls the “nones”—we are already seeing the results of Americans growing increasingly alone and alienated. Durkheim identified this phenomenon as anomie, a kind of normlessness. Without the social capital that religion and membership in meaningful social groups once provided, suicide becomes an attractive alternative to a life of loneliness and despair.

It is notable that suicide rates for females were highest for those aged 45-64 in both 1999 (6 per 100,000) and 2014 (9.8 per 100,000). This age group also had the second-largest percent increase (63 percent) since 1999. It is not a coincidence that marriage rates have hit a new low at the same time suicide rates have hit a new high. Marital status has a significant effect on suicide rates, with the unmarried having much higher rates of suicide than those who are married. From 2008 to 2015, the marriage rate dropped more than 13 percent for young women with high school diplomas or less. GenXers and Millenials without a college degree are increasingly moving away from marriage and it is likely that their rates of marriage will continue to decline.

The statistics on suicide are beginning to become “real” for those live along the train lines on the Connecticut shoreline, where “death by train” is increasing, even for women. Last Friday, April 29, there were two separate suicides on the Metro North/Amtrak train corridor from Washington, DC to Boston through the historic towns on Connecticut’s “Gold Coast.” Two weeks earlier, on April 15, a 46-year-old Stratford man was killed after he was hit by a Metro North train near the Stratford, Connecticut train station, in an apparent suicide.

These most recent deaths follow an alarming trend during the past few years. According to the Federal Railroad Administration Office of Safety Analysis, there has been an increase in the number of suicides on the Metro North line. In 2011 there were four suicides, and in 2012 there were another four suicides. This escalated to six suicides in 2013, and another six in 2014. In 2015 there were 10 suicides on the train line.

One of those 2015 deaths was a Catholic priest, 50-year-old Rev. Colin McKenna of the Diocese of Bridgeport. The month before Father McKenna’s death on the train tracks, Tamar Louis, a 28-year-old Stamford woman, was killed on August 7 when she was hit by a Metro North train at the Cos Cob station in Greenwich. The medical examiner ruled her death a suicide. The month after Father McKenna’s death, Jennifer Battista, 41, was hit by an Amtrak train on the tracks near the Southport station in Fairfield. Officials stated that her death “did not appear to be criminal or accidental.”

Any suicide leaves many victims. In the wake of each tragedy are family members and friends, wondering how they might have prevented the act. In the case of death by train, the crew on the train as well as the passengers all are witnesses to the death. For a sociologist, the causes of suicide have nothing to do the means of the death—by train, firearms, poison, or suffocation—but rather the social structure that makes such a death possible. The suicidal impulse is rooted less in the mind of the suicide victim than in group values. The decision to commit suicide is, as Durkheim put it, “endowed with coercive power, independent of individual will.” It was Durkheim, more than a hundred years ago, who first provided sociology with its raison d’etre when he argued that social phenomena such as suicide rates can be adequately explained only through an analysis of social conditions, including the breakdown of the norms that operate throughout a society. Durkheim argued that while values, attitudes, and beliefs about suicide may appear to be individually constructed, it is a collective force that moves individuals toward self-destruction. The individual pulls the trigger of the gun that ends his life, or chooses to jump in front of the oncoming train, yet a number of social and cultural factors determine the likelihood of his—or, increasingly, her—making that jump. 

If suicide were purely an individual act, then the relative number of people who killed themselves each year should be the same in every social environment. But Durkheim discovered that suicides followed predictable patterns. The first social scientist to construct elaborate statistical models in analyzing data, Durkheim demonstrated that the annual suicide rate is both relatively stable in a given society and perceptibly different from one society to another. The moral constitution of a society and its degree of integration or regulation establish its “natural aptitude” for suicide. The resulting rates of suicide are predictable—and amenable to change through social structural shifts. Males will probably continue to be more likely to commit suicide than females, and the suicide rates for never-married and divorced people will remain higher than those among the married. Men have historically been less likely than women to be embedded in social relationships of care and responsibility, leaving them more prone to commit what Durkheim identified as “egoistic suicide.” And because marriage integrates people into primary groups—the marital couple, the family of in-laws, close friends of the spouses, and so on—married people are less likely to kill themselves than the unmarried.

What Durkheim demonstrated in 1897 is still true today: the stability and predictability of the suicide rate for any particular society is caused by social factors and can have no other explanation. This is why dramatic change in the social structure—including declining religious affiliation and marriage rates—will have an equally dramatic impact on rising suicide rates.

In Laudato Si, Pope Francis calls on us to begin to pay attention to our fraying social fabric, which leaves people adrift from the community support mechanisms that sustained them in the past. The Holy Father asks us to “weave bonds of belonging and togetherness,” calling on us to promote ways to “increase our sense of belonging, of rootedness, of feeling at home within a city which includes and brings us together.” Unless we acknowledge what Pope Francis has identified in Laudato Si as the experience of a “communitarian salvation,” we are all at risk. 

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About Anne Hendershott 101 Articles
Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio.  She is the author of The Politics of Envy (Sophia Books, 2020)