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Cory Silverberg

Of Death and the Gender Binary

By July 6, 2010

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Yesterday I wrote about a recent article in The Atlantic called "The End of Men". Having to read the whole piece was infuriating and depressing. So much so that the reading an article called "'You Feel Like You Can't Live Anymore': Suicide from the Perspectives of Men Who Experience Depression" actually made me feel hopeful. I'll explain.

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of British Columbia, began as an attempt to better understand how ideas and experiences of masculinity impact men living with depression. Are there aspects of being a man, given all the expectations that come with that in a world of strict gender roles, which make a person more likely to be depressed, or make it harder to deal effectively with depression? Early on in the research the authors were struck by the way interviewees, all of whom were either diagnosed with depression or self-identified as depressed, talked about suicide. Like any great researchers, they decided to follow the data, and shifted their focus to talk with men about masculinity and suicide.

The result is an academic paper that's deeply affecting, filled as it is with stories of people who are in pain, describing what it's like to be in pain and at the same time feel alone and helpless. The men in the study talk about the struggle to keep both depression and thoughts of suicide at bay and in their analysis of the interviews, the researchers focus on the role of masculinity in this struggle.

One of the things the researchers were interested in understanding better is what appears to be a discrepancy in the relationship between depression and suicide. Depression is widely considered a significant risk factor for suicide. Yet in North America women are at about twice the risk for depression, but a quarter the risk for suicide. How come so many fewer men are depressed, but so many more of them complete suicide? The researchers thought that by listening to what men have to say about suicide, they might get some insights.

What they found, after interviewing 38 men, aged 24-50, was that their experience of masculinity at times increased their risk and at other times reduced it. Sometimes, ideals of strength and being a "family man" resulted in men being less likely to think of suicide. Other times men's perceptions of themselves as needing to be alone, capable of solving all problems on their own (which again, they link to traditional gender roles), increased their social isolation which in turn increased their risk. In other words, these men told stories that revealed the relationship between gender and suicide to be complicated. Wisely, the researchers don't make any grand conclusions from this small qualitative study, except that gender is always there, and always important. Two quotes from their discussion characterize this approach:

"...doing gender can privilege men's autonomy and foster excessive and impulsive behaviours which restrict their help-seeking and social connections to heighten the risk for suicide. That said, it is also clear that masculine practices (some of which are idealized) can actually mitigate suicide risk. This was evidenced by participants' ability to counter suicide actions by pragmatically repackaging masculinity to meaningfully connect and confide in others as the conduit to effective self-management."

"The results also expose masculinities as mediating every juncture in men's pathways toward and away from suicide, and, divisively perhaps, we predict that masculinities feature in the 'black box' manifests detailing the suicides of individual men as well as the disjuncture between men's rates of depression and suicide."

These are important insights, and a much needed reminder to all of us that gender is always present, and we should always attended to it without assuming what it means. But as I was re-reading the article (yup, it's that good, also it's short) there was something that I struggled with. It was the idea of pragmatically repackaged masculinity. Partly I just grimace a bit at the neoliberal connotations of the term "packaging". But it also makes me wonder about the options we're opening up, or closing down, for men as we try to find ways to help them cope with depression and suicide, while attending to issues of gender socialization.

And I worry a bit about the authors lack of problematizing the binary of man/woman in the paper. By focusing on masculinities they are exposing the binary, which is more than many social scientists do, but when we don't spend at least a little time addressing the big binary picture, I feel as if the opportunity to radically expand our options (both for helping others and for our own lives) has been missed.

Our binary construction of sex and gender--the myth that there are only two biological sexes (man/woman) and two gender options (masculine/feminine) that map neatly and fixedly onto them and there is no middle ground--might be tired, but its also tenacious. It's so much a part of our lives that it can feel impossible to figure to imagine alternatives, but the binary doesn't work, and whether we realize it or not, we're all suffering (and some of us dying) because of it.

None of this is to discount the work at hand. Unlike the simplistic and fawning Atlantic article, the UBC paper contributes to a discussion of great importance in a subtle and elegant fashion. While I might want to gently nudge the researchers further, what they offer in this paper is an opportunity to start having conversations about gender, sex, life, and death, in a slightly more calm, considered, and hopefully fruitful way.

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July 7, 2010 at 4:54 pm
(1) Ian Ironwood says:

Any time you look at gender roles in connection to mental health, you have to look at them in context — that is, you can’t just look at male psychology without also looking at female reactionary psychology, and vice versa. Sure, this is depressing — but it was about self-identified suicidally depressed men. Drawing any grand conclusions about this would be an error.

But the study’s determination that traditionally “masculine” issues both increase and decrease stress is fascinating. I’m curious how such elements were labeled and quantified. And while I agree that gender is an inescapable factor that cannot be ignored, masculinity is a complex and sophisticated thing as much about societal and cultural issues as it is about physiology and psychology.

July 10, 2010 at 12:31 am
(2) Cory says:

Agreed on all points. In terms of their analysis, it’s qualitative, so ultimately this isn’t about arriving at some universal truth, it’s about the researchers interpreting what’s in front of them. As someone who exists somewhere in the middle of the gender pool I’m often wary of research that rests on the identification of “masculine traits” but for whatever it’s worth, I found the analysis thoughtful and open.

August 23, 2010 at 9:26 am
(3) Sam says:

The problem is the silliness in thinking that women and men are binary. I think ‘like’ is a more accurate word.

However, an analysis of male reactionary psychology is needed.

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