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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.

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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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