Men, Mental Illness and Suicide

A suicide occurs in this country every 13.7 minutes, according to the Web site of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. In 2010, the most recent year for which statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were available, suicides in this country took place at a rate of 12.1 per 100,000 people.

While women are three times more likely to attempt suicide, men are four times more likely to kill themselves. That is because men tend to use inherently more violent methods for the fatal act, such as firing a gun.

Of all the mental-health subjects I have discussed over the years, suicide remains the most searing. I have a personal history here, and not only because I was suicidal in the late 1990s when I was hospitalized at the USC psych ward as well as at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute.

My grandfather took his life, as have two of my cousins, all of them men.

Part of the problem is that men, even relatively successful ones like my grandfather, who ran a cafeteria, and one of my cousins, who was a well-to-do doctor and businessman, often have a problem with openly discussing their depression and other mental illnesses, to say nothing of suicidal feelings.

From what I have been told, the suicides in my family came as a shock to my family members, who never thought, up until the final act, that the men were other than responsible, though everyone knew that my grandfather was debilitated by a crippling depression.

CDC statistics from 2010 indicated that whites, who on average have higher income levels than minorities, committed suicide at the highest rate among the races, a rate of 14.1 per 100,000, far higher than African-Americans (5.1) or Hispanics (5.9).

This bolsters a point I have made in a number of recent pieces that it is a cliché to state that those with severe mental illness are simply cycling in and out of jails, homelessness, addiction and hospitalization. Many of the mentally ill hold down good jobs and blend in to society, though that does not prevent some of them from taking their lives.

Irrespective of race, men in 2010 in the U.S. committed suicide at a rate of 19.9 per 100,000, compared to women, who did so at a rate of 5.2.

Most people who commit suicide suffer from an underlying depression, and many of them feel a profound sense of shame not only about their mental illness but also about their perceived failure to fulfill the expectations and goals they had set for themselves.

As Edwin Shneidman, the late suicidologist, wrote in The Suicidal Mind, a person who commits suicide typically "has been the victim of a vandalized childhood, in which the preadolescent child has been psychologically mugged or sacked, and has had psychological needs, important to that child, trampled on and frustrated by malicious, preoccupied or obtuse adults."

In spite of these unmet "needs," the vast majority of suicidal people, roughly 90 percent, according to Shneidman, are "ambivalent" about taking their lives. They want to be saved and leave others with clues that often have a finality to them, such as saying, "I won't be seeing you again," or tidying up their wills.

If a friend or loved one can pick up on these clues, he or she should remain with the suicidal person until the latter is safe at a therapist's office, an emergency room or a psych ward.

As I have written before, some of the most luminous characters in the history of Western civilization, from King David to Winston Churchill, Abraham to Abraham Lincoln, very likely battled mental illness and in some cases were suicidal.

Yet those men all enriched and blessed the planet with their sublimity in spite of their depression, psychosis and/or suicidal despair.

Not one of those men was weak. They were tough guys, tough enough to handle their trauma, to speak or write openly about it and to tame their mental illness.

This post is part of a special Huffington Post series, "Invisible Casualties," in which we shine a spotlight on suicide-prevention efforts within the military. Every weekday in September, we'll feature a different blog post by someone who is either an expert in the field, who has been affected by a suicide, or who has contemplated suicide. To see all the posts in the series, as well as original reporting, audio and video, click here.

If you or someone you know would like to contribute to our series, send an email to

And please, if you or someone you know needs help, call the national crisis line for the military and veterans, 1-800-273-8255, or send a text to 838255.