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A lost generation
18th August 2003
From section: Perspective News
Publication: The Age
The Age. Reproduced by Permission

They are only a small group, 12 in all; mothers brought together by a shared sorrow. All have sons who killed themselves in the middle, some would say the very prime, of their lives. They first met, not at a formal support group, but by chance over the graves of their sons at the Springvale Cemetery.

Ivy Felix began to notice the other women, one by one, on her visits to the graveyard. She was there to mourn her boy, Shane, who had inexplicably taken his life when he was 33. She wasn't looking for company but, over time, she began to strike up conversations with other mourners.

"And time after time, it turned out they, too, had lost adult sons. I couldn't understand it - I still don't - why all these adult men were choosing death," she says.

Now when Ivy visits Shane's grave she speaks with no one else because "I don't want to meet any more of us, our sad little group". But she knows the names and ages of the 11 other sons - Martin, 28; Wayne, 27; 42-year-old Clive; Ian who was only 26 . . . and she tends their graves because, she says, "they are all like Shane".

It would be easy to dismiss this anecdote as mere coincidence. But Ivy's experience touches upon a much bigger and, until recently, largely unnoticed national problem: the way in which an increasing number of Australian men are choosing to deal with a crisis point in their lives.

In 2001, more men -1935 to be exact- killed themselves than the total number of people who died on the nation's roads.

And every year, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, four times the number of men commit suicide than do women.

It is also clear that the suicides have been occurring at a time when male mortality rates in general have dropped sharply.

While suicide among today's youth is not the problem it once was, what we are seeing, some experts say, is a "generational" tendency towards suicide.

In effect, the generation that were killing themselves as young men years ago, are now committing suicide as adults. That is, if they did not take their lives then, they may still be inclined to do so now. And they are doing so at a rate that is far greater than that of today's youth.

For the past four years, the number of adolescent males killing themselves has been steadily dropping, whereas the number of older men doing so has remained depressingly unchanged.

The cold, hard truth is that men aged between 25 and 44 account for almost 50 per cent of all suicide deaths in Australia, followed closely by men who are aged either 45 to 54 or more than 75 years old.

So why is this happening? Why are so many men choosing to end their lives by their own hand?


Baptist minister and social commentator Tim Costello, 48, has thought deeply about what is driving the men of his generation to kill themselves. Not only because one of his friends took his own life, but also because he is too often asked to officiate at funerals where the deceased is a middle-aged Australian man.

He believes the same generation, who as boys effectively started the youth suicide crisis in the 1970s, is committing suicide as middle-aged men today.

This invites the fundamental question: do we have a particular generation of men who are prone to suicide?

"It's about the loss of the dream that has sustained you until your middle years," Costello says.

"Suddenly, men find themselves confronted with having to live the second part of their life and this means maybe letting go of certain things that until now have been their compass - raising children, striving in their career, being the hunter-gatherer."

One of the most persistent questions that swirls through any discussion on middle-aged men and suicide is whether the traditional notion of men as provider and protector is collapsing in Western societies, leaving in its wake a generation of men unsure of their place in the world.

"This generation we are talking about all grew up with the traditional model of stay-at-home mum and hunter-gatherer dad," Costello says.

But, he adds, this same generation of men also came of age and became the partners of women who had the opportunity to forge their own careers outside the home and sometimes earn as much as, or more than they do.

"The question for many men then becomes 'Do they really need us?' - that is what is really going on at the back of some men's minds."


Julian Krieg can rattle off the grim statistics, although he would prefer to talk about what is behind the death toll. As a government-funded suicide prevention officer in Western Australia, he doesn't know if he has prevented any deaths, but one thing is sure - it is a job that not so long ago would not have existed.

His beat stretches 200 kilometres east of Perth into isolated, drought-ravaged wheat country sparsely populated with small farming communities.

It is a masculine landscape, both physically and emotionally, a place etched in Australian outback mythology, where blokes keep their own counsel. It is also a place where men kill themselves - often in their cars, on a straight stretch of road and against a lone tree.

Inevitably, there are no witnesses to say whether it was an accident or something more disturbing.

Krieg has a theory that men have fewer opportunities to "find themselves" than women, so when life delivers up the inevitable curve ball, some men flounder and are unable to deal with life-changing occurrences or events that question their role in life, that lead them to pause and ask "who am I?".

"For some, there is a void, a hole in their heart when something happens and they revert to problem-solving as a way out," Krieg says.

"Men will make a list of things they can do to sort out their crisis and tick these off as they go. At the end of this list may be suicide. And this is something a man knows he can succeed at.

"Here's the big secret. We are fragile - men are really very fragile."

Krieg does not stick flyers up outside general stores or in pub bars asking men to come and hear him talk about why they should not kill themselves. Instead, he gets himself invited to local crop updates run by the local branch office of the Department of Agriculture in the backblocks of Western Australia.

The meetings are held in cavernous superphosphate bunkers, with a few plastic seats pushed against a back wall.

"I don't get up and talk about suicide. I say 'Look after your mates, talk to your mates before it all gets too much'," Krieg says.

Last year, during the drought, he went out and spoke to farmers on the theme "Coping with Hard Times". But instead of talking about the lack of rain, he asked the men how they were feeling about not being able to find enough money to pay for their kids' school fees.

Krieg says the outpouring of emotion was overwhelming.

Kate Sydes, from Wesley Mission in Sydney, is the national manager of the organisation's suicide prevention program. Like Krieg, she spends most of her time on the road, running workshops in large towns and also in isolated communities, talking about life, death and, importantly, all the stuff in between.

Sydes is at the coalface and the messages she and other counsellors are receiving are becoming increasingly anguished.

"For the first time we are worried that the people who are coming along to our meetings, especially in the small rural communities, are going to take their own lives," she says.

Sydes recalls one workshop held in a woolshed in rural Victoria last summer. "One guy stood up and said one of the problems facing men in country towns was the absence of women," she says.

"He said the men have no one to talk to any more because most of the town's young women had left.

"Women are often the glue that holds these communities together, the social lubricant, and once they go, the men feel increasingly isolated," Sydes says.


Social analyst Richard Eckersley, of the Australian National University, has a theory that those who commit suicide are like miners' canaries for the rest of society. Their deaths imply something is wrong in the overall environment.

He believes the growth of individualism in Western culture, and its emphasis on personal attributes, achievements and roles, is much to blame for the rise in suicide among middle-aged men.

Late middle age can, he says, be a time when these factors are assailed: looks fade, bodies sag, careers have peaked, maybe decades of striving at work have taken their toll. Perhaps dreams and aspirations have remained unrealised, children grow up and are less reliant on their "dad", they are no longer required for procreation, spouses have lives and careers of their own.

"I'm not saying this is standard or inevitable, but it is a possibility and it could produce a deep loneliness," Eckersley says.

But others believe the answer is to be found not in analysing societal shifts, but rather in the need to acknowledge a serious medical condition claiming the lives of many men.

Put simply, many middle-aged men are suffering from undiagnosed and sometimes severe clinical depression. In other words they are "masked depressives", some of whom become so sick they kill themselves. They do not rationally choose death, it just becomes inevitable.

Professor Robert Goldney, from Adelaide University, is an international expert on suicide. In his private practice as a psychiatrist, he treats plenty of middle-aged men. He unapologetically takes what he describes as the "real estate view" of middle-aged male suicide.

"It may sound simplistic, crass even, but this is the reality of it - depression, depression, depression," Goldney says. "If you could get rid of all depression, you could eliminate 50 per cent of suicides."

Goldney says part of the problem is that men aged 25 to 55 generally do not talk about their depression. They do not turn to a doctor or a counsellor for help. "In some ways, depression is not in the vocabulary of these men," he says.

"At the point of suicide, it is not an impulsive act for someone suffering severe depression. The person is no longer able to consider the impact on others. If they can still think through the consequences, then there is still a chance to pull them back, but too often they are not given that opportunity," Goldney says.

"You know, it's often the very strong people who end up suiciding. They put up with depression and pain, often for a very long time, before they end up doing something about it. It must be bloody awful."

But Professor Diego De Leo is not so sure. The director of the Australian Institute for Suicide Research and Prevention at Griffith University is convinced that undiagnosed depression is only part of the answer.

Instead, he argues, if we are to see any significant lowering of the rates of male suicide in Australia and other nations with similarly high incidences - Canada, New Zealand and the US - then a cultural shift has to occur.

"Meaningful social engineering is needed if we want a reduction in suicide rates," De Leo says.

For the men most vulnerable to suicide - those aged 25 to 44 - the "culture of maleness" in our society makes them especially susceptible, he says. Men in this age group are inexperienced at coping with loss.

"They are facing failure for the first time as an adult, either in a relationship or perhaps financially or in their job, and because our society elevates the notion that men must be strong, and not express their feelings, some stumble," De Leo says.

"These men have to pay a fee to maintain that image and for some the fee is simply too high."

This idea was explored at a recent national workshop on the theme of suicide prevention for males aged 25 to 44. At the conference, sponsored by the federal Health Department, there was much talk around the topic of redefining "maleness".

"The culture of maleness, promoted in the media, in schooling, in sport, has elements that promote suicide: resistance to asking for help, to communicating inner feelings, to forming groups around these emotional issues," a briefing paper later summarised.


The Howard Government appears to be listening. It has allocated $45 million to a suicide prevention program over the next five years. The program will include an inquiry into relationship breakdown.

It will also involve an inquiry into shared-custody arrangements. This follows claims by men's support groups that the current system is leading to suicides, although others point out the absence of hard evidence to support this contention.

Not wanting to diminish the gravity of youth suicide, Professor Goldney thinks it is important to review the prevailing perception that Australia has high numbers of young people killing themselves.

Although he welcomes the Federal Government's new-found interest in the suicides of middle-aged men, he says it has been a long time coming.

"While youth suicide is important, the overwhelming number of suicides don't involve young people, yet all the money until now has gone into it," Goldney says bluntly.

"The politicians took a lot of convincing in the early '90s to regard suicide as a national priority, and then the emphasis was only on youth suicide - whole-of-life suicide didn't seem to be sexy enough. But it's better late than never."

Professor Ian Webster, who chairs the federally funded National Advisory Council for Suicide Prevention - set up in response to the youth suicide crisis a decade ago - agrees middle-aged men have largely been ignored.

"We've realised this group of people has really gone unnoticed until now. I don't think we've dealt with this group well, but at least now we're trying," Webster says.

"We've got to get the message out to men that they are not as strong as they think they are and should not feel they have to be."

Webster acknowledges that a suicide taskforce may not necessarily come up with an explanation for why middle-aged men are killing themselves at such an alarming rate. But, he says, "we can do something about what services exist for people and how those services work . . . we can't save everyone but we can have a go".


Tim Costello believes there is an essential truth in the notion that men are not much good at expressing their feelings. He admits he is pretty hopeless himself, and he is someone whose job and vocation is pastoral care.

"I play footy every Sunday morning for the South Yarra Veterans and you see this there. We'll win a match and all these blokes will be hugging each other and it's not just about the win, there is another deeper connection being made - but it is fleeting," he says.

He refers to the program "Spirituality in the Pubs". Just as it sounds, chaplains go into the front bars and talk with men about spirituality. Or not. Sometimes it's just about talking.

"You know, when women say 'let's have coffee', they know exactly what they mean: they talk about their personal life. When men have coffee, they literally have coffee," Costello says. "Maybe we need chaplains in every pub."


Although it is now five years since her son Shane's death, Ivy Felix says there are days when it seems like last week.

"This grieving is quite different because I don't understand why. He gave us no signs of some silent pain."

It took her a year to sort through Shane's possessions and longer to sell his house. She has been helped through her pain by her involvement with Compassionate Friends, a bereavement service set up for parents and siblings who have lost children, brothers or sisters.

"I found out I was not alone and again, like the cemetery, I found other people who had lost grown men," Ivy says.

But she is still no closer to under-standing why her son decided to gas himself to death in his garage. But in the absence of any other explanation, she has come to believe he must have been suffering from depression.

His marriage had ended four years earlier, but his family believed he had recovered from the heartbreak of it.

"He hid his despair too well," Ivy says.

She says Shane appeared to be looking forward to the future. A tal-ented musician, he was booked solid every weekend, playing at weddings and parties. And, he was about to travel to India to meet a woman he had begun a relationship with.

"He danced with me the night before he died," Ivy recalls. "And he never seemed happier, my strong, handsome son."

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