Suicide linked to culture

Aug 252010
Authors: Keeley Blakley

Women in the U.S. exhibit suicidal behavior more frequently than men but are less likely to die from a suicidal act, according Silvia Sara Canetto.

Canetto, a CSU psychologist, said that suicide is viewed as a masculine act in the U.S. And while male suicides are seen as powerful and deliberate, female suicides are considered the result of emotional instability and weakness.

“In the U.S., women are expected to fail at suicide,” Canetto said. “A woman who kills herself is considered unfeminine.”

Canetto recently spoke at the 118th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association about how cultural trends affect suicide rates in men and women.

Nations like the U.S., for example, contribute to the stigma of male suicide being more acceptable than female suicide through language used to define success or failure.

In the U.S., uncompleted suicides are often defined as failed or unsuccessful attempts. Suicides that are carried out, resulting in the death of an individual, are labeled complete or successful –– creating an environment where women are ridiculed for a nonfatal suicide attempt, Canetto said.

Cultural perspectives on suicide are rooted in the methods men and women use to kill themselves.

“In the U.S., men gravitate toward more lethal means, (guns, jumping from tall buildings),” said Jeanne Marecek, a psychology professor at Swarthmore College. 
Still, firearms are a more common way of committing suicide in the U.S. than in many other countries. In America, women utilize a firearm in suicide 34 percent of the time, while men use firearms 60 percent of the time.

“Dr. Canetto’s work is important for public understanding because she insists that suicide and self-harm are not just symptoms of a disease, but expressions of distress or interpersonal difficulties that are culturally patterned,” said Marecek, who studies suicidal tendencies of women in Sri Lanka.

While most member nations of the World Health Organization have higher death rates in male suicides, not all countries show the same trend in suicidal behavior.

In China, for example, women are more likely to commit suicide. Their culture views suicide as feminine and a reaction to emotional distress and weakness. Men and women in rural China are also more likely to commit suicide than those living in bigger cities.

Understanding how to communicate with different groups of people dealing with depression is beneficial in suicide prevention, said Wylie Tene of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

“It is not inevitable, not unchangeable,” Canetto said. “We can look at other cultures and learn about their points of resilience.”

Staff writer Keeley Blakley can be reached at

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