Photo by Kim Stallknecht /PNG files
The hidden epidemic of male suicide is growing worse, intersecting with escalating deaths from opioid overdoses.
“There’s a silent crisis in men’s health that’s killing men in staggering numbers,” said Prof. John Ogrodniczuk, director of the psychotherapy program in the psychiatry department at UBC. “It’s not cancer, it’s not heart disease, it’s not liver disease — it’s suicide. When you look at the numbers, it’s like ‘Wow.’ ”
Male suicide rates in Canada are high and rising. Men are three times more likely to take their own lives than females, says Statistics Canada. Eight men die of suicide in Canada every day. Most common methods tend to be overdosing, firearms and hanging.
The suicide rate grows more shocking among certain male subgroups, particularly those who are Indigenous, homosexual, transgendered, in the military, middle-aged or going through divorce, according to peer-reviewed research by Ogrodniczuk, David Kiely and others.
Climbing male suicide rates also intersect in many ways with the opioid crisis, in which deaths have risen during COVID in B.C. and across the country, said Ogrodniczuk, who directs a website for men struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts, called Heads Up Guys.
“In a coarse kind of way, you can think of opioid use and other heavy substance abuse as kind of a slow suicide,” said Ogrodniczuk.
According to the B.C. Coroners Service, “during this pandemic there has been a statistically significant shift towards opioid-related deaths occurring among men.” Prior to COVID, males accounted for 69 per cent of B.C.’s opioid fatalities. That rate has jumped to 78 per cent of the more than 1,700 who have died since 2019. Such trend lines are consistent throughout Canada and the U.S.
Men who want to commit suicide often feel completely isolated, Ogrodniczuk has found.
“Men who are thinking about suicide feel they don’t belong, that they have no connection to others, that others don’t understand them, that they are literally alone in their experience. It’s a scary place to be — hopeless and helpless.”
The professor and his colleagues have talked to scores of men who have survived suicide attempts; finding “by and large they didn’t want to die. They just want the pain to end. They get to a desperate place where they can’t see any way out.”
That anguish can be particularly prevalent among people who become addicted to opioids, especially in B.C. where illicit drugs are often laced with fentanyl.
Although some suggest males become heavy drug users because they’re predisposed to taking risks, Ogrodniczuk clarifies that they’re not seeking thrills.
“It’s more about how they don’t give a s*** anymore. They’re feeling, ‘Life sucks. I don’t care. I can walk in front of a bus. It doesn’t matter.’ That’s the kind of risk-taking that’s often associated with opioid use. It’s an attempt to numb pain, so you don’t feel anything anymore.”
Although he finds it “amazing we’re not talking about” suicide among males, he doesn’t necessarily think it’s because of a so-called “empathy gap” in North America, in which males are perceived as generally not warranting compassion.
Ogrodniczuk believes one reason the grim topic is mostly avoided is that many males are not adept at seeking help.
“Many men are socialized to tough it out, to not show their emotions, to be stoics,” Ogrodniczuk said. In the midst of their torment they feel shame, like failures. So they fear speaking to partners, family or professionals.
The other big barrier for men is the lack of resources. “There’s almost nothing out there for guys. There’s a big service gap.” Although Ogrodniczuk’s website gets 60,000 views a month, he said there needs to be much more for depressed and suicidal males.
Ogrodniczuk’s observations fit with those of a small cohort of thinkers appalled by the way many less-educated, working-class Americans and Canadians are dying rapidly from so-called “deaths of despair,” characterized by suicide and chronic alcohol and drug use. Their plight is captured by economists Anne Case and Angus Deacon in the book, Deaths of Despair and The Future of Capitalism.
Certain sub-groups of males are extremely vulnerable to suicide, particularly during COVID, reveal studies by Ogrodniczuk and colleagues.
While Canadian men are three times more likely to take their own lives than women, the rate shoots up further among First Nations males. A recent Statistics Canada report found 30 First Nation males per 100,000 are killing themselves, compared to 12 in 100,000 non-Indigenous males (and four in 100,000 non-Indigenous females).
In one of the dozens of studies Ogrodniczuk has taken part in, gay men were found to be six times more likely than heterosexual men to take their lives. Transgender men were five to eight times more likely. Rates were also exceptionally high among men in the military and in middle age. Canadian-born males are much more likely to suicide than immigrant males.
A new paper by Ogrodniczuk et al has found that COVID-19 has been devastating for many men, possibly increasing the likelihood of suicide. It discovered 30 per cent of Canadian males in relationships who have sought help admitted they were more likely during the pandemic to be perpetrators of abuse (primarily verbally), while 27 per cent said they had also been victims of such abuse.
The construction industry, in which men make up 19 out of 20 workers, is also being clobbered. Chris Gardner, president of the IACPA, recently wrote that “more than 50 per cent of employed people who have died of opioid overdoses in B.C. worked in construction … The risk of suicide for a construction worker is seven times the average.”
With male suicide so elevated, Ogrodniczuk is disturbed by the absence of tailored services for struggling men and boys.
His website, Heads Up Guys, which has been accessed by two million viewers since 2015, is unique in the English-speaking world, he says. He wishes it wasn’t. Distressingly, men find it online because it’s one of the first sites that pops up when they Google the term, “I want to kill myself.”
The courageous men who do reach out for help find an array of material at Heads up Guys, which aids them in feeling “Hey, somebody gets me” and to start building a support team. But since the site runs solely on private donations, it can only direct men to therapists. It can’t provide one-on-one therapy.
That’s one of the reasons Ogrodniczuk supports the B.C. Psychological Association’s renewed effort to convince the B.C. government to join other provinces and include therapy by highly trained psychologists as part of the Medical Services Plan.
That, however, is just one of myriad things that could be done to ease the crisis. “The status quo is not working for a lot of guys,” he said. “We need to do something different.”
Phone 1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433) if you are considering suicide or are concerned about someone who may be.