On average, eight Australians take their own lives each day; six men and two women. Of the 3,046 who took their lives in 2018, 2,320 were males. Furthermore, the trend is up; In the 10 years from 2009 to 2018, the number of men and boys dying by suicide rose 30 per cent, with the overall rate rising from 10.8 to 12.2 per 100,000 people.
And although the overall highest suicide rate is among men aged 85 or over (32.9 per cent), next highest is middle-aged males (45 to 59) at 27.8 per cent. This is also where the biggest increase is occurring.
Compare this to the murder rate, at less than 1.0 per 100,000 and declining for decades, or the 1,135 deaths from road accidents (5.6 per 100,000 people), also trending down. Suicide by males is a national tragedy.
This is all well-known; indeed, there are multiple government initiatives intended to address it. Suicide Prevention Australia has been in existence for 25 years, and the 2019 Bud"get allocated $461 million to youth mental health and suicide prevention. Since July last year, we have even had a National Suicide Prevention Adviser reporting directly to the Prime Minister to “drive a whole-of-government approach to suicide prevention activities.”
What’s more, the problem is not limited to Australia. The suicide rate in America in 2018 was 14.2 per 100,000 and is also rising. Men similarly account for nearly three-quarters, with the 45 to 64 age group highest after the over 85s. More than three-quarters of the gun deaths in the U.S., about which we hear so much, are suicides.
What is not known is the cause. All that’s known with certainty is that men and women are quite different and, at least for men, mental illness is not a major factor. Relationship breakup, loss of children, false allegations of violence, unemployment and loss of homes and assets are suspected to be triggers, while repeatedly being blamed for toxic masculinity, domestic violence, male patriarchy, the gender pay gap and sexist discrimination probably doesn’t help. But the evidence is largely anecdotal.
"All that’s known with certainty is that men and women are quite different and, at least for men, mental illness is not a major factor."
What’s more, we’re not doing much to find out. As far as the government is concerned it is largely a case of doing more of the same and expecting a different result. Suicide continues to be discussed in non-gendered terms and assumptions about mental illness are common. When he announced the National Suicide Prevention Adviser, the Prime Minister nominated “veterans, indigenous Australians and young people” as being most at risk, with not a word about middle-aged blokes, and said about 80 per cent of people who took their own lives had mental health issues.
To be fair, Suicide Prevention Australia is now talking less about mental health. But whether this signifies meaningful change is still to be seen. Last year it awarded six research grants, all to female researchers, and not one addressed male suicide. Moreover, the Way Back service that Movember (the fund-raising campaign based on men growing a moustache) funded and pioneered in partnership with Beyond Blue, helps more women (60 per cent) than men.
Meanwhile, organisations that seek to support men during periods thought to be associated with suicide languish for lack of support.
I believe we own our bodies and have the right to decide when to end our lives, with or without assistance. But the men who choose to die in middle age are somebody’s son, brother, husband, partner, father or grandfather. As entitled as they are to end their lives, every decision to do so is heart-breaking.
Male suicide is a large and growing problem, and all we know for sure is that what we are currently doing is failing. With almost as many males dying from suicide as women dying from breast cancer and cervical cancer combined, it is time for quiet Australians to speak up.
David Leyonhjelm is a former senator for the Liberal Democrats.
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