The Age - Wednesday, 8th December 1999,By Bettina Arndt
Why does nobody care about men killing themselves? There's immense public concern about youth suicide. Australia has spent more than $31million over the past four years to try to reduce our high suicide rates among the young. There's much angst about Aboriginal deaths in custody, and even gay youths are finally being acknowledged as a group at risk. But when it comes to blokes, ordinary adult men killing themselves in ever-increasing numbers, there's no interest.
Our health departments have spent the past few years studiously ignoring the growing evidence that adult men aged 25-44 are most at risk - as confirmed by figures released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics last week. In 1998, men in this age group had the highest suicide rate of all Australians, followed by men aged 15-24. Elderly men, 75 and over, who traditionally have the highest rate, in that year fell into third place.
Males are four times more likely than females to take their own lives.
While there's good reason for concern over the tripling of youth suicide rates over the past 30 years, in the past decade the youth rate has virtually levelled off while suicide rates for males aged 25-44 continue to rise. In 1990 the rate for this latter group was 27 per 100,000. In 1998 it hit 37.
Men's health activists and suicide researchers have long been trying to convince health authorities that blokes are in trouble. A recent Australian Medical Journal article by Dr Chris Cantor from the Australian Institute for Suicide Research and Prevention at Griffith University made a strong case that these high-risk men should be targeted by suicide-prevention policies.
But so far there's little sign that anyone is listening. Early this year, the Health Minister, Michael Wooldridge, sought community reaction to a draft national action plan for suicide prevention. All the politically sensitive groups rated a mention - young people, gays, Aborigines - but not a word on programs targeting men, let alone the vulnerable 25-44 group.
Men's health initiatives announced recently by the federal Department of Health and Aged Care fail to include any proposals to deal with this issue. In fact, there is active resistance among health policy bureaucrats to funding any research that identifies suicide as a "male" issue. The standard line is that targeting male suicide is inappropriate because females attempt suicide even more often than males. The fact that men are four times more likely to make a proper job of it is dismissed as irrelevant.
A rare intervention aimed at men is a research project into access to mental health services, announced by the Victorian Department of Health and Community Services in 1997. But this only targets men aged 16 to 24 or over 50.
The one government organisation that has officially responded to the trends in the high-risk group is the federal Attorney-General's Department. It's not surprising. This is the department that actually has most contact with the group of men now most at risk of suicide.
Daryl Williams' department handles family law, which places it in the firing line to deal with distressed, recently separated men - precisely the males who are pushing the suicide rates for their age group to record levels.
There is solid evidence that recently separated men are responsible for the alarming increases in male suicide in the 25-44 age group. Dr Cantor found that separated males are six times more likely to commit suicide than married men, with separated men under 29 being particularly vulnerable - their suicide rate is 150 per 100,000.
Divorced men and women show higher suicide rates than married people, but still less than half the rate of the separated men.
The suicide rate for separated men is almost 18 times higher than for separated women. Since most children end up with their mothers after marriage break-up, it could be that family responsibilities reduce these mothers' suicide risk. But most separations (more than two-thirds) are now instigated by women - so it is men who are most likely to show the distress associated with being left rather than being the leaver.
Add to this the social isolation faced by many separated males, the loss of homes, assets and close contact with children, and it's hardly surprising more men seek a permanent way out.
Self-destructive behavior among separated men was a major theme at the National Forum for Men and Family Relationships sponsored by the Attorney-General's Department in 1988. Other initiatives have followed, such as a telephone service for men in crisis. The Department of Family and Community Services is targeting men involved in relationship breakdown.
Yet our official suicide-prevention strategies have turned a blind eye to the issue - although, thankfully, a spokesman for Michael Wooldridge's office suggests this will soon change.
But, to date, it is clear that men just don't rate in the eyes of the politicians and bureaucrats steering policy. The latest story on whales beaching themselves commands far more public attention than the steady loss of these sad, rejected men.
Bettina Arndt is a staff writer. People needing help can call Crisis Line on 136169 or Lifeline on 131114 or 1300 651 251.