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Articles

The suicide generation
23rd November 2004
By: SIMON CASTLES
Publication: The Age
The Age. Reproduced by Permission


Depression has seemingly followed in generation X's shadow. We need to do more to find out why, writes Simon Castles.

Recently an old school friend of mine, Paul, took his own life. We hadn't had much contact for years, so the news came out of nowhere, throwing me into my past. I thought about his poor parents. I remembered the easy days I had spent in their family home as a teenager. Paul was 33 years old.

When I broke the news to my brother, who knew Paul in that familiar way siblings know each other's school friends, he was a little quiet. After a time, he sighed, "There's something seriously wrong."

He had reason for talking this way. For the moment was much sadder for us than it might have been. Less than two years before, our older brother, John, had committed suicide. He was 39. Hearing about Paul merely brought closer to the surface an ache we both carried every day.

John and Paul weren't much alike. My brother was a bookish PhD who struggled to find work and a purpose. Paul was a university-of-life character who thought nothing of working a 70-hour week behind a bar. But they were of the same generation. And if it's true, as the Arab proverb has it, that "men resemble their times more than they resemble their fathers", then this is perhaps significant. For it is becoming increasingly apparent that generation X - roughly that cohort born between 1961 and 1975 - is the suicide generation. Depression has seemingly followed in X's shadow.

During the 1980s and early '90s, when this generation were teenagers, the teen suicide rate shot up sharply. By 1990, the suicide rate among males aged 15 to 19 had more than tripled in 30 years in several countries, including Australia, New Zealand and the US. (Female suicide rates are generally lower than men's, though it is believed women actually attempt suicide more.)

In recent years we have seen a welcome decline in the number of teen suicides (though there are still too many, of course), and the suicide rates for Australians aged over 50 are down markedly. But among people aged in their 30s, the suicide rate is up. The trend is disturbingly easy to spot: the generation that were killing themselves as teenagers 20 years ago are the same generation that are killing themselves as adults now.

In 2002, the year my brother died, 2320 Australians took their own lives - 78 per cent were men and, of them, almost 50 per cent were aged 25 to 44. My brother, so extraordinary to me, was so distressingly ordinary demographically.

According to Robert Putnam in his book Bowling Alone, as the 20th century ended, those raised in the 1970s and '80s were "three or four times more likely to commit suicide as people that age had been at mid-century". In the first half of the 20th century, older people were more likely to commit suicide than younger people; in the second half, the reverse was true.

And it is not just the suicide statistics that point to a generation's malaise. Countless studies have found rising rates of mental illness in generation X. These findings range from the conservative (a 1996 British study that pointed to the rate of depression for twentysomethings doubling in the space of 12 years) to the extreme (US psychologist Jean Twenge found that the average American child of the 1980s reported more anxiety than child psychiatric patients in the 1950s).

So, why? What was it about the times that had such a devastating impact on that generation now reluctantly leaving young adulthood and entering middle age?

Reflecting on this question recently, suicide expert Professor Sven Silburn of the Curtin University of Technology said: "Something about their growing up and their formative years and the things that they've been exposed to as a generation has meant they've had higher overall rates of depression and that those rates are continuing." He wondered if the huge workplace changes in recent decades might not have played a role.

I am sure they did, and that the fallout continues. But I am also aware that, for personal reasons, I may be guilty of wanting to blame anything and everything. The demise of community? Yes. The rise in individualism? Yes. The breakdown of family? Tick. The decline in religious belief? Yep. The boom in rampant consumerism? Absolutely.

Still, it is important, I think, that we are brave enough to put theories for the malaise out there, however bound up they might be with individual experience and personal grief. This is vital not only for the future wellbeing of generation X, but also for the generations that follow.

After all, teenage suicide might be down, but one need only listen to former Australian of the Year Fiona Stanley, and her research pointing to an epidemic of behavioural and emotional problems in young children, to appreciate that mental health is going to be one of the great challenges of this century.

For what it's worth (and with the obvious caveat that there is never a single cause for any social problem), I do think the massive structural changes in the economy and the workplace in recent decades have exacted a heavy human toll - at the same time, paradoxically, as they have made Australia a materially wealthier country. Investments are up, serotonin levels are down.

It is surely not a coincidence that the countries that most fervently embraced individualistic, neo-liberal, market-dominated doctrines - Britain, the US, New Zealand, Australia - are the same countries that have faced crises of youth depression.

Fear and anxiety rose in the 1980s and '90s as the implicit employment contract that had governed working lives for generations was broken. The changes hit everyone hard, including older workers who suddenly found that job loyalty no longer counted for much.

But for generation X, growing up and coming of age at this time of great change and uncertainty, and then attempting to enter the workforce during a recession, the fear and anxiety was internalised.

That the times demanded individualism - "There is no such thing as society, only individuals" was Margaret Thatcher's grand political dictum of the era - only made life more precarious for those young people who, for one reason or another, were struggling to cope.

Such as Paul and John, and a rollcall of names that stretches silently across the decades

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