June 25, 2017 7:00 pm

The pressure on men to be providers is one reason they have much higher suicide rates

Employment and financial stress are a common factor in suicides among men, who are three times more likely than women to take their lives in Canada.

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Men account for three-quarters of suicides in Canada and money may have something to do with it.

Going back to the Great Depression of the 1930s, scholars have noted spikes in suicides immediately after a market crash, said Mark Henick, national director of Strategic Initiatives for the Canadian Mental Health Association.

Devastating financial losses appear to be a major threat to many men’s sense of self-worth, he added.

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But even without stock prices wiping out family fortunes, economic crises can be especially dangerous for men. Job losses often deprive men of their role as financial providers, which can lead to equally powerful feelings of having lost their masculinity.

READ MORE: Why men are more likely to die by suicide and how to help someone at risk

For some, that’s like “losing your being,” said Henick.

study of Europe, the U.S. and Canada published in the British Journal of Psychiatry showed that while suicide rates go up for both men and women during economic recessions, the impact is much larger on men.

A qualitative survey American men who had lost their jobs during the Great Recession revealed a similar sense of loss of identity.

READ MORE: These 3 groups are at ‘high risk’ of mental health issues in Canada. Here’s why

When Northern Illinois University (NIU) sociologist Kristen Myers started interviewing recently unemployed men during the Great Recession, she was surprised to hear over and over again that “job loss to them was synonymous with a hit to their masculinity,” she told Global News.

Her interviewees were consistently expressing that feeling, she said, “no matter what job they had before — we had bankers as well as carpenters.”

And although none of them were suicidal, many of them were depressed, she said.

WATCH: Every year, thousands of men kill themselves, the suicide rate amongst men is three times higher than among women. Heather Yourex-West explains why and how you may be able to help someone at risk.

Provider role particularly tough for middle-aged men

Suicide is generally the result of a confluence of factors.

Men probably commit suicides in greater number because they’re less likely to seek help when struggling with mental illness, said Henick.

“We know that 90 per cent of suicides are related to a diagnosable mental-health illness,” he noted, but there are many more women than men diagnosed with anxiety and depression. This suggests a greater share of men is eschewing the kind of assistance that could hep prevent suicides.

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Men are also more likely to use more lethal means to take their lives — such as guns and hanging. While women often opt suicide via prescription-drug overdose, which has higher rates of survival.

But studies show employment and monetary factors play a big role in leading men to kill themselves.

And middle-aged men appear especially vulnerable. Canadian men between the ages of 50 and 69 had the highest suicide rate across both genders and all age groups in 2012, according to data from the World Health Organization.

A 2014 report by Toronto Public Health showed that job and financial variables were the most common causes of stress among men aged 45 to 64, compared to interpersonal conflict, which was the leading stressor overall in the case study.

READ MORE: Treatment at Ontario mental health facility was ‘torture’, judge finds

The British study of Europe and North America found that the risk of suicide during economic crises rises was four times higher for working-age men.

“Between 2008 and 2010, had the change in the male suicide rate not exceeded that among females there would have been 2,380 fewer deaths in Europe,” write authors Aaron Reeves and David Stuckler, of the University of Oxford, and Martin McKee of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

The burden to be a provider can be particularly intense for middle-aged men, who are often sandwiched between children who still need financial assistance and aging parents who are starting to require help as well, said Oren Amitay, a registered psychologist and lecturer at Ryerson University in Toronto.

WATCH: How to talk to your kids about mental health

Men’s role is changing, but the idea of the male provider persists

The idea of the male breadwinner has long stopped matching up with reality, Myers, at NIU, noted.

Women are increasingly likely to be the family breadwinner in Canada. Around 30 per cent of heterosexual married couples rely on the wife to bring home the majority or all of the family’s employment income, according to Statistics Canada. In the U.S., that number stood at 22.5 per cent in 2011, and 40 per cent of households with children rely on women for all of the majority of income once you take into account single mothers, too.

READ MORE: How mental health should be taught in Canadian schools

But “the male provider — whether it’s the one clubbing strangers and trying to protect the land or the one trying to pay for the mortgage — is one of the roles that has not changed despite that fact that the female role has immensely,” said Amitay.

The majority of American men and women across all age and race groups still prefer men to be the lead financial provider, according to research by Georgetown University professor Catherine Tinsley.

READ MORE: Major depression is on the rise in youth, especially teenage girls

Women who expressed a strong conviction that men are better providers were more likely to make choices that would hurt their earning potential, according to Tinsley.

But “gender roles constrain not only women but men. And there is enormous pressure felt by some males who feel they have to be the primary breadwinner,” she told Global News via e-mail.

Much like participation in childcare and house chores is generally considered a responsibility for a women and a praiseworthy achievement for men, so being the primary breadwinner has remained a default responsibility for men, added Myers.

WATCH: The importance of accessing mental health supports

What can be done?

One factor that could help lower the rate of male suicides is an open conversation about the fact that men should be able to seek help without shame when they’re feeling are depressed or feeling overwhelmed, said Amitay.

Men who reveal their vulnerabilities or their struggles to live up to what’s expected of them often face dismissive reactions from both other men and women, he added.

Even people with otherwise socially progressive views often adopt this attitude. And that leads to “isolation and hopelessness, which are two of the prime risk factors when it comes to suicide,” Amitay told Global News.

READ MORE: The No. 1 mental health issue Canadian employees take time off work for

Effective treatment of depression and public policies that help the unemployed return to work could also soften the impact of economic shocks on suicides, according to Reeves, Stuckler and McKee. 

But changes in workplace policies and culture are another important piece of the puzzle.

Employers who continue to treat women as “employees earning extra money,” perpetuate the stereotype of the male breadwinner, said Myers.

And while the assumption that women are more family-oriented tends to harm their career prospects, the assumption that men must be providers means they are more likely to be penalized for taking time off for parental leave, she told Global News.

READ MORE: One-third of Canadians at ‘high risk’ for mental health concerns

And in work environments dominated by macho culture, job losses poses a greater status threat, noted Reeves, Stuckler and McKee.

“Greater gender equality in the workplace,” they conclude, “may attenuate the mental-health risks of economic shocks.”

WATCH: Do millennials expect a lot when it comes to mental health in the workplace?

© 2017 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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