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Suicide cannot be made a front in the culture war

A poorly researched article by Bettina Arndt shows how the right is turning male suicide into yet another aspect of Australia's culture wars.

depression male suicide rates culture war family court
(Image: Getty)

Heard the latest conspiracy theory from the right? Apparently there’s a vast cabal, starting with Prime Minister Scott Morrison, engaged in “whitewashing” the real cause of suicide — an unfair family court system. Our current anti-suicide efforts are just another front in a wide-ranging war on men by feminists in powerful institutions. 

At least that’s the theory argued by sexologist and men’s rights activist Bettina Arndt and published by the Australian Financial Review today.

Arndt’s evidence is that the newly appointed “National Suicide Prevention Officer”, Christine Morgan, is a woman; that Scott Morrison wrongly claimed 80% of people who take their lives have a mental illness; and that research by the Australian Institute for Suicide Research and Prevention (AISRP) shows marital breakdown and child custody disputes are “the major cause of suicide in this country”.

Let’s take Arndt’s claims one at a time.

Morgan is, indeed, a woman, so well spotted. Her appointment is an outrage because most suicides are by men. “Imagine the outcry if a man was appointed head of a leading domestic violence prevention organisation?” Arndt says, lazily equating domestic violence and suicide and suggesting they’re just variations of the same issue. Men do indeed dominate suicide and always have for a variety of reasons (they are more “successful” at it for a start), but suicide rates among Australian women are growing far more rapidly than among men, according to ABS data. Between 2008 and 2017, suicide rates grew 31% among women compared to 11% among men.

Both are tragic, both represent major policy failure, particularly given the decline in suicide rates in the 2000s. But the five fastest growing cohorts for suicide are all female — women aged 15-19 (among whom suicide rates have nearly doubled since 2008) and women in middle-age groups. More to the point, why Morgan’s gender prevents her from advising effectively on suicide prevention strategies, which requires consideration of both suicide data and program evaluation data by researchers, is never explained by Arndt.

Perhaps it’s because Morgan’s background is as a leader in mental health, and mental health is the great enemy that must be destroyed? Arndt attacks Morrison’s statement that “‘[a]round 80% of people who die by suicide have a mental health issue’… No, prime minister. That’s simply not true of men …” and goes on to quote AISRP studies.

Except when you actually check the AISRP research it doesn’t support Arndt’s glib dismissal of mental health. A recent article by AISRP researcher Samara McPhedran, which argued for a broader focus on suicide causes than just mental health, noted:

There’s no doubt that mental illness, especially depression, is a risk factor for suicide. Researchers estimate between 30% to 90% of people who die by suicide have some form of mental illness.

An AISRP submission to a Senate inquiry in 2010 noted that mental health played a greater role in female than male suicide, but that “the risk of suicide for males with mental illness is more than four times that for males without mental illness”. Now, that submission could provide considerable evidence if you want to argue, as Arndt does, that mental health isn’t the major issue in male suicide. Unemployment is a critical risk factor (men are 14 times more likely to take their lives if they’re unemployed), as is previous suicide attempts (10.7 times). Indigeneity (nearly twice as likely), is also important.

But Arndt isn’t interested in those — she wants to blame the family court system. For that, she appears to rely heavily on a 2017 AISRP paper that looked at the suicides of just 18 farmers in regional Queensland and NSW. That paper noted that separation or divorce were common “acute situation” for younger male farmer suicides, while child custody and “legal issues” were also key. Except, the paper also notes that “[most] farmers were found to have a diagnosis of a mental disorder at time of death”.

“Most” being 17 of the 18 — a lot more than 80%. And, again, economic factors and long-term mental health problems were also important, with both underpinning “relationship” cases as well as being “acute” causes in their own right. This is the paltry basis for Arndt’s claim that family break-up is “the major cause” of suicide — conveniently ignoring the majority of suicides by young people, Indigenous people and elderly Australians unrelated to family issues.

But unlike AISRP, Arndt isn’t interested in trying to give us a more nuanced understanding of what causes men to take their lives beyond mental health issues. This is instead another front in the right’s culture wars, this time in the men’s rights theatre — where according to Arndt there’s “a biased family law system which fails to enforce contact orders, and often facing false violence allegations which are now routinely used to gain advantage in family court battles”.

“It is time for the quiet Australians to speak out about this shocking whitewashing of the proper facts about suicide in this country,” she urges. “Contact your MP, ring radio stations, use social media posts to protest …”

As we’ve seen with Pauline Hanson and Mark Latham, right-wing extremists are happy to exploit domestic violence to prosecute their culture war against the alleged power of feminism. But exploiting suicide, and the catastrophic damage that it leaves behind, is a new low.

For anyone seeking help, Lifeline is on 13 11 14, and Beyond Blue is 1300 22 4636. Suicide Call Back Service is on 1300 659 467, and MensLine Australia is on 1300 78 99 78. Headspace and ReachOut have useful mental health resources for young people.

Peter Fray

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Paul Maynard
Paul Maynard
1 year ago

But the “quiet Australians don’t ring radio stations or use social media or contact their MP. That’s why they are the quiet Australians. Appealing to a mythical or indeterminate group provides the pretence of caring without the responsibility and allows any genuine activists to be dismissed as groups with an agenda.
Also misquoting statistics gives the appearance of fact while ignoring inconvenient truths.
Are all the single people committing suicide victims of the Family Law Court?
Sound like more of a bubble from the Newscorp think tank.

Marcus Hicks
Marcus Hicks
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul Maynard

AFR actually, but close enough to Murdoch these days!

Vernon
Vernon
1 year ago

Re: The claims made about suicide.
The appointment of a “National Suicide Prevention Officer” with a target of ‘zero’ suicides, really??.
What an incredible nonsense target. It should be possible to reduce the rate of suicide through improved awareness and availability of support services, but targets of “zero” suicides, is sheer politics.
There will always be those who give nil prior indication and take their lives impulsively.
As a mental health professional, I am aware that scenario is very likely impossible to prevent.
And a claim that 30-90% of those who suicide have a “mental illness”, is the sort of statistical range that would suggest just another stat pulled out of the ether.
When we look at the state of our economy, our politics and the environment, choosing suicide may soon start to look like a rational choice to some.

Draco Houston
Draco Houston
1 year ago

Family courts need improvements too, like anything else, but any sort of talk about that is drowned out by anti-feminist idiots. Their ‘advocacy’ is self defeating, because it hurts men who need the family courts. A friend of mine hasn’t seen his kids in about a decade specifically because he wasn’t able to mount a legal challenge to the actions of his ex-partner. He might be a lot less depressed today if, say, legal aid didn’t suck so bad. That isn’t the fault of feminists.

I imagine that problem comes up more often for women, a lack of resources making navigating the systems available onerous. I would bet money on feminist advocacy getting that solved before the “MRAs”. They’d probably be happy to throw my mate under the bus to enforce traditional family or something.

Lesleygray
Lesleygray
1 year ago
Reply to  Draco Houston

No Draco Houston, I feel for your mate, but on both sides of the family court situation, it’s tough especially if you don’t have the resources to deal with the situation..

Many women I know have ended up in your mates position for whatever reason, I’ve seen families left with very little after the lawyers & barrister’s have had their fill of the families coffers, it’s got nothing to do with feminism..

The highest level of homelessness is now in the female over 50’s demographic, many living in their cars, because they’ve been replaced with a newer model, (that’s however many years younger & prettier than them) often these women have limited resources due to interrupted employment history’s, (often because of their primary childcare responsibilities) their often discouraged by their husbands to continue working as they would earn too much money so they often relinquish their jobs to placate the ATO apparently, this is quite common.
When older women are summarily dispatched/divorced by their husbands, who have been squirreling money away out of shared accounts for many years until the wife finds themselves as an ex & on the wrong end of a decree nisee & unfortunately it’s all down hill from there..
If your mates got a roof over his head, then yes it’s really sad, he’s not been able to see his kids, for all those years, but often they make contact as they get older & find out what really went on in their family..
So there’s always hope….

The concept of feminism being the problem is just a myth, cooked up by politicians or would be politicians to try to make them look more knowledgeable or experienced than they actually are, with selected research stats to bolster their argument(s)..

Inherently there still seems to be a bias against the male parent that is often used in the family court against them to ”protect” the children, which for female partners who dare to go down that path it can backfire & often does..

In regards to the suicide rate in men & how it plays out in regards to the family court orders & system, until there’s concrete research saying there’s a problem there, using stats that actually don’t back up her argument could lead Ms Arndt into extremely dangerous territory…

Azzif Yewdnoh
Azzif Yewdnoh
1 year ago
Reply to  Lesleygray

I think it might be worth re-reading Draco’s comment, you seem to have misinterpreted it.

Draco Houston
Draco Houston
1 year ago
Reply to  Lesleygray

“No Draco Houston, I feel for your mate, but on both sides of the family court situation, it’s tough especially if you don’t have the resources to deal with the situation..”

Wait, yes or no? I’d read on but you clearly didn’t read what I wrote.

bushby jane
bushby jane
1 year ago

The family law court is grossly underfunded, and about to be scrapped by that idiot Porter, which means that issues spoken about that may lead to suicide are not addressed in a timely manner. This is always a cause of angst and emotional decision making, also costly.

1984AUS
1984AUS
1 year ago

Bettina Arndt has never been a friend to humanity; she has serious mental issues.

tmgalvin052@gmail.com
1 year ago
Reply to  1984AUS

On the contrary, Bettina Arndt is an outstanding intellect and uses quality research to back her arguments.