“This is a worldwide phenomenon in which men die at four times the rate of women. The four to one ratio gets closer to six or seven to one as people get older.”

That’s Professor Brian Draper, describing one of the most common causes of death among men. Suicide.

Suicide is the cause of death with the highest gender disparity in Australia – an experience replicated in most places around the world, according to Draper.

So what is going on? Draper is keen to avoid debased speculation – there are a lot of theories but not much we can say with certainty. “We can describe it, but we can’t understand it.” One thing that seems clear to Draper is it’s not a coincidence so many more men die by suicide than women.

If you are raised by damaged parents, it could be damaging to you.

“It comes back to masculinity – it seems to be something about being male”, he says.

“I think every country has its own way of expressing masculinity. In the Australian context not talking about feelings and emotions, not connecting with intimate partners are factors…”

The issue of social connection is also thought to be connected in some way. “There is broad reluctance by many men to connect emotionally or build relationships outside their intimate partners – women have several intimate relationships, men have a handful at most”, Draper says.

You hear this reflection fairly often. Peter Munro’s feature in the most recent edition of Good Weekend on suicide deaths among trade workers tells a similar story.

Mark, an interviewee, describes writing a suicide note and feeling completely alone until a Facebook conversation with his girlfriend “took the weight of his shoulders”. What would have happened if Mark had lost Alex? Did he have anyone else?

None of this, Draper cautions, means we can reduce the problem to idiosyncrasies of Aussie masculinity – toughness, ‘sucking it up’, alcohol… It’s a global issue.

“I’m a strong believer in looking at things globally and not in isolation. Every country will do it differently but you’ll see these issues in the way men interact – I think it’s more about masculinity and the way men interact.”

Another piece of the puzzle might – Draper suggests – be early childhood. If your parents have suffered severe trauma, it’s likely to have an effect.

“If you are raised by damaged parents, it could be damaging to you. Children of survivors of concentration camps, horrendous experiences like the killing fields in Cambodia or in Australia the Stolen Generations…”

It comes back to masculinity – it seems to be something about being male.

There is research backing this up. For instance, between 1988 and 1996 the children of Vietnam War veterans died by suicide at over three times the national average.

Draper is careful not to overstate it – there’s still so much we don’t know, but he does believe there’s something to early childhood experiences. “Sexual abuse in childhood still conveys suicide risk in your 70s and 80s … but there’s also emotional trauma from living with a person who’s not coping with their own demons.”

“I’m not sure we fully understand these processes.” The amount we still need to understand is becoming a theme.

What we don’t know is a source for optimism for Draper. “We’ve talked a lot about factors that might increase your risk but there’s a reverse side to that story.”

“A lot of our research is focussed predominantly on risk rather than protection. We don’t look at why things have changed for the better … For example, there’s been a massive reduction in suicides in men between 45-70 in the last 50 years.”

“Understanding what’s happened in those age groups would help.”

It’s pretty clear we need to keep talking – researchers, family, friends, support workers and those in need of support can’t act on what they don’t know.

If you or someone you know needs support, contact:

  • Lifeline 13 11 14

  • Men’s Line 1300 78 99 78

  • beyondblue 1300 224 636

  • Kids Helpline 1800 551 800

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Why does male suicide rate four times higher than those of women?