By adding family care work to their family financial-provider contributions, men could diversify their sources of meaning and purpose and their social capital—therefore likely boosting their suicide protection.
A new study found that men’s suicide rates were lower in countries where men reported more family care work—including when unemployment rates were high. Family care work was defined as providing personal care or education for a child or providing care for a dependent adult.
The study tested my theory that men’s suicide vulnerability is related to men’s private life behavior —specifically their low engagement in family care work—not only to the adversities that men may encounter in their public lives (for example, unemployment). The study’s findings suggest a new way to reduce men’s high suicide mortality: family care work.
In other words, if men assume more direct care work responsibilities at home, it may very well save their lives.
Dominant Theories of Men’s Suicide Not Supported by Evidence
Around the world, men are the majority of those who die of suicide, but not universally—which suggests social influences.
Theories dominant in European and in majority European-descent countries link men’s suicide to men’s public-life roles—specifically the stresses and demands of their economic-provider roles. These theories predict that men’s suicide rates would be higher when men’s roles as financial providers are under threat, like in times of economic crisis or following retirement.
Studies however show that economic adversities—including unemployment and retirement—do not account for men’s high suicide rates.
To start, men’s suicide rates are not necessarily higher in times of economic recession. For example, a multinational study of suicide and unemployment during the 2008–2010 economic recession found substantial variation in suicide rates by country. In Austria, men’s suicide rates did not increase when unemployment rose; in the U.S., unemployment explained a small portion of the variance in men’s suicide rates.
The reasons for this variability are unclear. One hypothesis is that the association between unemployment and suicide would be weaker in countries with work protection programs—such as programs providing expenditures to compensate for unemployment—or in countries with active labor programs—such as programs aimed at helping people find employment.
Studies however indicate that the impact of these programs varies by country, and within country, by demographic group and by region. For example, an Italian study found that between 1990 and 2014, active labor programs were effective in moderating the association between unemployment and suicide only among men ages 45 to 54, and only in central Italy.
Retirement does not explain men’s high suicide rates either. In the United States, men’s suicide rates after typical retirement age, that is, in late adulthood, are especially high among men of European descent. If retirement was a universal suicide risk factor for men, post-retirement suicide rates would climb similarly for men across ethnicities.
Patterns of women’s suicide also challenge employment adversities as an explanation for men’s suicide: If employment problems were a universal suicide-risk factor, women’s suicide rates should have skyrocketed in countries where women’s participation in the paid labor force grew. This is what dominant suicide theories predicted.
But women’s suicide rates did not raise concomitant with women’s increased participation in the paid labor force—including in the U.S., where women’s suicide mortality remains significantly lower than men’s.
The Link Between Men’s Family Care Work, Unemployment and Suicide
The new study—conducted by a multinational team including Chen, Cai, Chang, Yip, and myself, and published in Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology—examined suicide, men’s family care work, and unemployment in 20 countries, including Austria, Belgium, Canada, Italy, Japan and the United States.
In this study suicide rates were found to be lower in countries where men reported more family care work. Furthermore, in countries where men reported more care work, higher unemployment rates were not associated with higher suicide rates in men. By contrast, in countries where men reported less family care work, higher unemployment rates were associated with elevated suicide rates in men.
These findings are consistent with my theory that men’s vulnerability to suicide is amplified by men’s over-investment in economic-provider work and by their under-investment in family care work.
The study’s findings also challenge the idea that men’s high suicide rates are a symptom of a masculinity crisis triggered by the growing equality between women and men. Incidentally, men’s high suicide mortality is not a new phenomenon that coincides with the recent advances in women’s social and economic status.
It is not known how family care work may impact men’s suicide propensity. A possibility is that family care work is protective because it diversifies men’s sources of meaning and purpose as well as their social capital and networks. Understanding the pathways linking men’s family care work and suicide is a direction for future research.
Implications For the Prevention of Men’s Suicide
The multinational evidence on men’s suicide, unemployment and family care work points to new directions for the prevention of men’s suicide.
Dominant approaches to the prevention of men’s suicide have focused on employment and on providing employment safeguards, for example, via employment protection programs. A limitation of these approaches is they reinforce men’s already strong identification with work and with the economic-provider role.
By adding family care work to their economic-provider responsibilities, men could diversify their social capital and their sources of meaning and purpose, and with that, increase their psychological resilience, and also, likely boost their suicide protection.
The new findings on men’s suicide, unemployment and family care work are consistent with a diversity of findings. Collectively, these findings suggest that for men, as for women, having both family care work and family financial responsibilities is conducive to greater well-being, health and longevity than having only family care work or only family economic responsibilities.
A suicide-relevant difference between women’s and men’s life experiences is that most women do both financial provider work and family direct care work while most men primarily do financial provider work.
The benefits of paid employment for women have been known for a long time. Women’s well-being, health, and longevity have increased concomitant with women’s growing participation in the paid labor force. Employed women enjoy better health and well-being than unemployed women. The reasons include that employed women have independent financial resources, broader social networks, greater power outside and within the home, and greater self-esteem and confidence than unemployed women. Women’s paid employment also contributes to the well-being of their children.
The benefits for men of participating in family care work have been less well-documented. This is likely because men have yet to assume family care work responsibilities to the same degree that women have taken on family financial responsibilities. Men still do about two to 10 times less family care work than women.
Implications for Public Policy
Together with related research findings, the new evidence on men’s suicide, unemployment and family care work suggests that greater equality in women’s and men’s family care work and in family economic responsibilities is associated with a range of positive outcomes in men as in women, including suicide protection.
Care work is at the center of U.S. national debate. The U.S. Build Back Better Act, with its investments in care infrastructure, like paid leave and child and older adult care, has been framed as a bill addressing women’s needs, and in support of women’s paid work.
The research findings on men’s suicide, unemployment and family care work, together with related research findings, suggest that the Build Back Better Act will benefit both women and men. Not only because family care work is women’s and men’s work, but also because family care work, especially when combined with paid employment, can contribute to both men’s and women’s well-being.