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Suicide: Why Are Older Men So Vulnerable?

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Silvia Sara Canetto, a Colorado State University professor of psychology has spent her career studying cultural narratives of suicide.  In a new study she looks at gender and age and racial disparities in suicide. “We also see enormous variability by ethnicity which again makes the point about cultural influences as opposed to even simply a difference in ideologies and behaviors by sex.” Canetto says older men of European descent have the highest rates of death by suicide. “We see very different patterns of mortality by suicide among older men depending on ethnicity.” She looked at suicide rates of men aged 85 and older of European descent “(they had) suicide rates of more than 50 per 100,000. By contrast, men of the same age of African descent had a suicide rate of 10 per 100,000.”

Canetto says the media must steer clear away from using language which glorifies suicide for men in this category. She cites the obituary in Time magazine of Bruno Bettelheim, a psychoanalyst who died by suicide in later life. The obituary in Time magazine said “dead by his own decision” and Canetto says that throughout the obituary there was a narrative of Bettelheim being a fighter and dying like a fighter.

“Those are the kind of inadvertent powerful ways of narrating suicide of an older man that convey this somewhat heroic and therefore somewhat positive framing of the suicide that therefore might create a modelling effect.”