Young male suicide: reversing the trend

I am a new reader of XY and was a participant at the stimulating and well-organised Boyswork conference in June 1994. While there I heard of much excellent work by men and women on stopping men's violence to others. Thankfully, the main thrust of this work has been to critically analyse traditional notions of masculinity.

This is all great work, but I haven't heard of much work from this perspective which addresses the fatal violence that young men do to themselves.

Until recently Australia had the highest male youth (15 to 24) suicide rate among industrialised nations. According to recent UNICEF figures, New Zealand now has the highest rate, but that doesn't lessen the problems that exist in this country.

In March of this year, driven by a deep concern for our high young men's suicide rate, I attended the Public health Association's conference entitled "The public health significance of suicide - prevention strategies".

The other reason that I went along was that I am doing a Masters of Eduction in counselling at the University of Canberra. In my thesis I will analyse the relationship between masculinity and young men's suicide. As I forked out the $350 registration fee I checked the program. Out of the 50 or so papers, only one (by Norman Radican of Sydney MASA and Men's Health Educator at Royal North Shore Hospital) overtly addressed the dominant culture of masculinity! One other excellent paper, by Kenton Penley of the Second Storey Youth Health Centre in Adelaide, reported the dearth of research into the effects of heterosexism and homophobia on youth suicide rates.

To be fair to the authors whose papers I did not hear or read, construction of gender may have been covered and the forthcoming conference papers may bear this out. But two out of 50 is a damming illustration of how the community of "anti-suicide workers" regards the need to ask how gender construction effects suicide rates. I wondered at the time whether this reflected the pro-patriarchal scientific community represented by the Public Health Association. However, I recall that there were several papers presented on issues relating to the social difficulties of women, such as homelessness, expressed emotion and hopelessness and suicide attempts in Aboriginal versus non-Aboriginal single female parents.

A feminist perspective

in order to (a) redress the balance and (b) to try out the ideas behind my thesis topic, I asked the organisers if I could run an interactive session, which I naïvely titled "Saving young men from suicide - a feminist perspective". I used the term "feminist" because I wanted to get people thinking along the lines that women, who have a suicide rate almost four times lower than men (seven times les in some age groups), have developed ways of relating to one another, such as cooperating, caring, sharing and networking.

I can't help thinking that maybe less men might have killed themselves if these qualities had been more valued in male culture and those troubled men had learned and used them all their lives. The organisers graciously let me use a spare room in the Lakeside Hotel's conference suite. The room seated 50 but I welcomed five other participants (two women and three men) who brainstormed and discussed some answers to the questions which I posed. What are the reasons for male predominance in suicide statistics? Considering the social conditioning of boys and men, consider tree further questions. What do/don't males do socially and emotionally? What are their limitations in these areas? How/were do they/we learn these limitations? Now compare these with the behaviour of women.

Discussion ranged widely and we did not get very far through the questions. Of course some of the answers blended from one question to the next. At least the answers tended in most cases to affirm my views, which are perhaps as stereotypical as the answers. Some of the answers were that males are more "successful" at suicide because they; didn't know how to ask for help; where "untrained" at this; dealt with problems by using physical violence; valued, asked for, were given and used toy weapons as children; acted out violently at school and needed to prove that they were tough; could handle problems alone "like a man should"; set up a system to maintain themselves via oppression of females, so that if the system broke down, so did they.

Problematic answers

one of the answers which go counter to my views is that males are more suicide-prone because genetic and hormonal differences dictate a violent response. Hence, due to a rise in testosterone levels, self directed violence is the uncontrollable answer. Heard that one before? As in relation sexual violence and abuse of others by men, this answer assumes that self-directed violence cannot be controlled by an individual if given appropriate education, counselling and support.

The other answer that I had a problem with was the adolescent males only do "touchy feelies" if they are drunk or stoned. Two of the sessions I participated in during the Boyswork conference showed very clearly that, even while sober, young men responded very well to exercises involving physical contact aimed at stimulating self-reflection and a willingness to share their experiences and problems with others.

Patterns of support

a paper which was read at the Suicide conference by Jim Harrison pointed out that in the last 20 years, the suicide trend-rate for males has been diverging up and away from the female trend. The people at my interactive session suggested some reasons why women don't commit suicide as "successfully" as men, are that women; are more likely to have the hope of support from someone to talk to in a crisis; share problems more with other women, which leads to more sharing and support; are more information sharers, whereas (some) men use or withhold information for reasons of control.

I think it was Dale Spender who pointed out that women have developed these patterns of support and survival in order to live within the sociopolitical domination of patriarchal society. It is also clear that, for the same reason, gay men have had to develop similar strategies.

This therefore begs my question; Why can't all boys and men learn the same support and survival techniques, which we can use while we create more hopeful masculinities which are viable alternatives to the present patriarchal system?

I think it is essential that boys and young men learn and adopt communicative, mutually supportive, caring and sharing ways of relating to one another. Of course, lots of men have been doing this for years. One example I know pretty well through direct involvement is Men Against Sexual Assault, although MASA does not work specifically on suicide related matters.

Within such supportive ways of being I can foreshadow several outcomes for young men. They will be more open, caring and less violent to each other and the women children and men they live with. They will seek comfort and advice from their male as well as female friends when in a crisis. They will also feel there is more hope in life and consequently reject suicide as an option, drastically altering the direction of male suicide statistics.

All this begs the questions of how do we develop these supporting ways of acting in men's culture and where will they appear.

A new curriculum

Despite the grandiose title of the suicide conference which refers to "prevention strategies", the papers presented there and at a 1990 conference on "Preventing youth suicide" lacked a comprehensive pro-active educational strategy. Several papers contained useful and timely strategies which described and recommended educational programs for adolescents. However, there were no interventions aimed at the foundations of masculinity. There were no preschool or primary school programs put forward which encouraged very young boys to adopt caring, cooperative, communicative and anti-violent behaviour. I think there is an urgent need for such programs to be written and included in the curricula of state and territory schools.

I believe that in the playgrounds of masculinity-building we let little boys get away with too much violent, death-directed play. It is there and in subsequent macho tough-guy behaviour, as glorified in the popular media, that males are encouraged to rehearse their competence at suicide. Suicide statistics show that males use more lethal means of suicide than females. School programs should be designed to devalue violence and weaponry and to emphasise and highlight the value of caring, cooperation and discussion of both positive and negative feelings.

I agree with Richard Fletcher of the University of Newcastle who has drafted a boys' education strategy. He argues that a strategy must include the active recruitment of parents, guardians and carers - particularly males - into the nurturing aspects of schooling. Fathers and other domestic male carers of children need to be educated on the rationale for and the content of this new curricula. This should be done at the same time that their sons are learning to value caring and communicative behaviours at all levels of their schooling.

Other aspects of a comprehensive strategy include public information about men's and boys' health issues on television and other mass media. Norm Radican's work on the Ten Network's "Live it up" is a good example of this.

The above paragraphs contain some suggested elements of a comprehensive suicide prevention strategy. Without the reconstruction of masculinity at its base, other suicide prevention strategies such as talking to teenagers, will be 10 years late and will only be band-aid measures at best.


Matt Stewart is a member of Canberra Men Against Sexual Assault (MASA) and a school counsellor at Calwell High School, ACT.

First published in the magazine XY: men, sex, politics, 5(1), Autumn 1995. XY, PO Box 4026, AINSLIE, ACT, 2602, AUSTRALIA. Reprinted with permission. © Copyright 1995