Suicide: Influenced by Culture

Research indicates gender paradox is not universal

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) More America women attempt suicide, but more men die from suicide in the United States, creating a gender paradox that holds true in many industrialized countries. It is not a universal phenomenon, however.

What suicide rates across the globe appear to have in common is a significant cultural influence, according to Silvia S. Canetto, PhD, of Colorado State University, who spoke recently at the 118th annual Convention of the American Psychological Association.

“Everywhere, suicidal behavior is culturally scripted," said Canetto. "Women and men adopt the self-destructive behaviors that are expected of them within their cultures.”

In the United States and Canada, suicide is considered “unnatural” behavior for women and typically a masculine act, Canetto said at a symposium entitled "New Perspectives on Suicide Theory, Research and Prevention."

“The dominant view is that ‘successful, completed’ suicide is the masculine way to do suicide. In the U.S., women who kill themselves are considered more deviant than men,” Canetto said.

There are exceptions to the gender paradox. The Aguaruna people of Peru, for example, view killing oneself as feminine behavior, and the act is more common among women. In Finland and Ireland, men and women engage in nonfatal suicide attempts at about the same rate. In China, more women than men die from suicide. The act occurs more frequently among women there.

“It's not an inevitable general, universal pattern that men are more likely to die of suicide than women," Canetto said.

Race and sex also create a disparity in suicide rates per culture. Caucasians in America, for example, are twice as likely to commit suicide than U.S. blacks, Hispanics or Asian-Americans. 

Other variances of suicide and its cultural link exist, including the act’s definition. Residents of Papua New Guinea's Kaliai district consider suicide the ritual killing of Lusi widows by male kin. It is thought the widows demand to be killed to avoid becoming dependent on their children, so the dominant culture of the district views suicide as an indication of a feminine inability to control strong emotions.

In the United States, research indicates more rural residents kill themselves as opposed to urbanites. This data reflects the relative shortage of mental-health care available to rural populations – which can leave people isolated from help when they are most vulnerable – and the greater available of lethal farm chemicals and firearms.  The states with the most suicides include Alaska, Montana, New Mexico, Wyoming and Nevada. Washington D.C., New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts boast the lowest suicide rates.

James L. Werth Jr., PhD, of Radford University, suggested possible solutions to these alarming rural suicide rates at the same symposium. He said the integration of mental health practitioners into primary health care and greater access to broadband Internet services would increase access to resources and possibly reduce these startling figures.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
September 15, 2010
Last Updated:
February 16, 2011