This summer, I lost two male friends and a male cousin to suicide. I’ve known four men to take their own life in as many years. Over my lifetime, I’ve personally known eight men who have succumbed to suicide. There may be a ninth whose death was recorded as ‘accidental.’ One of these people was a student still in compulsory education but struggling to secure employment. Too young to vote. Too young even to drive. Based on the statistics, my personal loss is, sadly, unremarkable. Suicide is now the biggest killer of men under 45.

Suicide and the Five-Factor Explanation

Men accounted for most of the 793,000 suicides in 2016. The male suicide rate is 15.5 in every 100,000 and triple that of their female counterparts — a statistic true since the mid-1990s. Factors contributing to male suicide include financial instability and loneliness, driven by relationship breakdowns and a growing sense of isolation. But why are these mutually shared circumstances specifically affecting more men than women? Is the death drive (Thanatos) somehow stronger in men, or are women, perhaps, more resilient and better at adaptation?

The Five-Factor Model may shed some light here. It divides personality into five traits: Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Neuroticism, and Openness to Experience. Each trait is measured as being either ‘high’ or ‘low’. For instance, higher agreeableness is associated with a lower suicide rate. Whereas a low conscientiousness score (impacting hopefulness), has been associated with an increased suicide risk. Conscientiousness and agreeableness combined are standardly not ‘associated with depression,’ — a known factor in suicide — but neuroticism was found to have a positive association with experiencing depression.

False Impressions About Conscientiousness

There is, however, one glaring error; or at least an overlooked variable in all these studies. Agreeable and conscientious people are the ones being studied! An agreeable person is someone with a ‘willingness and ability to engage in social cooperation.’ A conscientious person is someone who is able to better control their impulses and play by the rules. These two groups are the very people most likely to say what others want to hear, to keep interaction pleasant, and to protect those around them. They are also, crucially, more likely to conceal their emotions beneath a warm façade and present themselves in a way that is socially expected and endearing. These two groups, in virtue of their behavioural traits, are naturally predisposed to conform to etiquette — especially when they know they’re being tested.

If we consider an average conscientious person, they will likely pick up the litter and act in accordance with their long-term goals. They will likewise complete their daily tasks and aim to realise their plans. And yet, it arguably makes more sense for higher — but unidentified — levels of conscientiousness to play a role in triggering male suicide when we take traditional social conditioning factors into account.

Men are still expected to be the main breadwinners. They are meant to have an evolved ‘gold standard’ of masculinity that pushes them to go out and secure, ‘that job, that house, that car, that woman, those children and that sunny family life.’ This pressure mounts and is mounted on men from a young age, resulting in a life plan that conscientious people feel obliged to fulfil. But this makes men more vulnerable to feeling that their ‘life is over’ when they fail to meet the societal obligations imposed upon them. A developed level of conscientiousness in men can, therefore, equally engender a sense of profound and frustrating guilt for having abandoned a vital plan against which success or failure is standardly measured.

Conscientious people generally have low impulsivity which makes them mindful of outcomes. Conscientious men in particular, often fear a negative societal response when a certain group expectation is unfulfilled. They can also fear backlash from voicing anxiety and/or suicidal thoughts around a perceived ‘failure.’ Wishing to avoid an unwanted reaction, they tend to bottle things up to keep the peace and refrain from bothering anyone. This makes men less likely to ask for mental health support than women, and so many male suicides are unforeseen.

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Is a Behavioural Shift to Blame?

according to one study, until 1880, more people were born who were of an intellectual, conscientious and agreeable nature (‘ICA’). These traits are now shared by a minority of the population. Research reveals that women score higher than men when it comes to exhibiting agreeableness and conscientiousness. As a result, men who score high in these traits can only feel like a minority within a minority —  victims of loneliness that most studies agree predispose them to suicide.

In our modern world, agreeableness predicts guilt. And in the ongoing climate, where women and other marginalised groups fight against the dominant ‘heteropatriarchy,’ it is easy to appreciate how an agreeable and conscientious white man may feel responsible for the suffering of these groups and guilty of benefitting from a heavily criticised system designed by and for white men. The recent narrative that argues white men (especially) have no right to complain, could explain why so many men struggle with opening up and speaking out. Faced with isolation and few other men on their behavioural wavelength, agreeable men are particularly vulnerable to experiencing dissociation and blanket loneliness.

Today’s world is a confusing yarn of contradictions and expectations that men struggle to meet. A man who is nice to women is called a ‘SIMP’ and men who express any interest in musical theatre suffer gay taunts. This helps to explain why some men choose to: ‘prove their manhood by engaging in behaviours that harm themselves and others (e.g., violence, sexism, homophobia), particularly people from marginalized groups. The irony is that partaking in these behaviours often leads to more, rather than less guilt, and certainly more loneliness and disengagement. Not feeling at home with oneself; feeling dead inside, or like a host for another’s personality. These are a lot of issues to put right before developing the capacity to like yourself enough ‘to make healthy choices’ and find a suitable partner to combat the feelings of loneliness.

The conscientious man is someone who is extremely mindful of suffering negative consequences from presenting himself as ‘unmasculine.’ This, of course, begs the question: Are conscientious and agreeable men really a minority or just thought to be? It’s perfectly plausible to assume that quite a few men feel reluctant to reveal having more feminine traits, and so we find ourselves thinking that the conscientious male is in short supply.

Everything seems to indicate that men are our least understood group because we’ve stopped listening to them. Maybe we’ve lost sight, as a society, of who they truly are. Or maybe they’ve just stopped speaking out because they figure nobody cares.

HELPLINES: Papyrus Helpline for ‘Prevention of young suicide’ – 0800 068 41 41. 24/7/365.

Text: 07860039967


Samaritans: 116 123.

CALM: 0800 58 58 58 17:00-00:00. 365.  

Shout: Text ‘SHOUT’ to 85258. 24/7

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