Australia: Reducing suicide over the holiday period: Look after your mates

Last Updated: 11 January 2020
Article by Sonia Hickey

Most Read Contributor in Australia, December 2019

Christmas is a time to celebrate and be merry, but it can be a lonely and depressing period for those who are already down – especially when they are not around family and friends. When alcohol or other drugs are added into the mix, the results can be tragic.

When the Australian Bureau of Statistics released the latest Cause of Death statistics in September this year, the numbers showed a terrifying trend.

The national suicide rate is the highest it has been in at least a decade, and in 2015, more than 3,000 people ended their own lives in Australia – more than eight people every single day. This is equivalent to one person every three hours.

Young men at high risk

According to the figures, suicide was the leading cause of death amongst all people aged between 15 and 44 years, accounting for one-third of all deaths, and the rate of suicide for men was three times higher than for women.

In the same week as these statistics were revealed, Lifeline released a report suggesting that 60% of Australians have admitted to feeling lonely often.

Lifeline CEO Peter Shmigel says we are failing our most vulnerable members of society.

"While we're prescribing more medication for mental illness than ever before – including a doubling in the rate of antidepressant use since 2000, we are not doing enough to combat social factors that lead so many to choose death over living," Mr Shmigel says.

She'll be right, mate

One of the contributing factors, especially for men, is the fact that they don't often open up about how they're feeling.

Social commentators, such as journalist Louis Hanson, say we have traditionally taught boys, and continue to teach them, that demonstrating emotion is not okay and that intimacy in male friendships is a sign of weakness.

Hanson asks: In a society where women value the bonds between each other, why doesn't the same apply for men?

In Australia, the whole premise of 'mateship' is one based on jokes and sarcasm – a 'she'll be right, mate' attitude.

It is a culture where manliness means keeping your deepest fears and feelings to yourself, and we continue to perpetuate this ideal with phrases like: 'boys don't cry' ; 'don't be a woos' and 'toughen up'. The peer pressure to act and behave without emotion can be substantial.

The recent ABC programme Man Up explored similar themes. Radio announcer Gus Worland probed the idea of what it means to be an Aussie man, and the correlation between our hyper-masculine culture and the pressure men are under to constantly 'man up'.

A reoccurring theme in the programme was that men are generally uncomfortable with expressing emotions, especially with each other. Men become pressure cookers, with emotions simmering just below the surface, and a small incident can be the catalyst for a catastrophic event – in a massive burst of emotion such as anger or violence, or deep depression leading to suicide.

Where to now

If one positive comes from all of this, it's that the statistics, as horrifying as they are, have started a social conversation. It's a discussion that's long over due and solutions need to come from all corners of the community.

In October, the Chairman of Beyond Blue, Jeff Kennett, floated the idea with the Business Council of Australia, that workplace programmes linking CEO pay to employee mental health should be considered right across the corporate sector. This could go some way towards impacting the male suicide rate, given that 70% of the Australian workforce is male.

In the same proposal, Kennett suggested that senior executives should have annual mental health checks due to the pressures of work and expectations involved.

Mental health is estimated to cost the economy $11 billion a year, with workers' compensation forming just a small part of that sum. Factors such as absenteeism and under-performance form a significant part of that cost.

While employers are increasingly recognising the damage that poor mental health can cause in the workplace, work is only one aspect of life, albeit a significant one, and we need to ensure better support for anyone at risk of a mental health condition and assist them to get appropriate help.

Look after your mates

Lifeline CEO Peter Shmigel says we need to stop asking: 'what's wrong with you?' and instead ask along the lines of, 'what's happening for you' and 'how can I unconditionally support you?'.

Shmigel points out that, "... there's no magic pill for loneliness, social isolation, relationship breakdowns and other personal crises."

So it's high time to rethink the image we have of manhood in Australia; to create a culture where mental health is seen as important and where emotional vulnerability, particularly in men, is seen as a sign of strength rather than weakness.

Perhaps then we will be on the right track to bringing the statistics down and stopping lives from being taken needlessly each day.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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