Sunday Mail (Australian)

Tainted love

PAUL MISCHEFSKI
07jul02
The Sunday Mail (Queensland)

WHEN Janet met 45-year-old "Tony", they clicked instantly and she believed she had met her soul mate. The couple spent a loving six months together, wining, dining and socialising as Tony tried to pick up his life after a difficult divorce.

"He was a lovely, caring man, he was very attentive," Janet, a 50-year-old nurse, said. "We had a whole future to look forward to."

Inexplicably, a week before Christmas, Tony drove quietly up into the hills on the Sunshine Coast and hanged himself.

Shattered, Janet discovered a few days later he had left carefully prepared letters for her, his boss and a few other important people in his life. It was obvious he had planned his death.

Janet said it was only after the tragedy she realised the full extent of the deep emotional turmoil and sense of hopelessness Tony was suffering at being separated from his children and over his dealings with the Family Court.

"He went through a Family Court settlement and signed everything over. He was a middle-aged man who had suddenly lost everything," she said.

"It obviously got too much for him."

Janet said the most difficult time came near Christmas. "It's that separation from their children and family, that's the worst part. That tore him apart: he hadn't seen his kids for four months."

Janet said the coroner told her Tony's case "was just the tip of an iceberg".

"There're plenty of support groups for women but there doesn't seem to be a lot available for men," she said.

"They are affected financially, emotionally: everything has gone. All of a sudden they've got nothing and have to start over again. They often lose their jobs because they can't cope."

Janet said Tony had gone to a counsellor – a woman – but came away feeling bad. He had later found a male counsellor who helped him considerably.

"For so long women were getting the raw end of the deal. Now the whole social and legal system as I see it at the moment is against men," Janet said.

Male suicide is one of Australia's biggest ongoing epidemics – yet few realise its extent.

Latest figures released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics show 1860 men committed suicide in 2000.

The number of female suicides for 2000 was 503. It is believed more women than men attempt suicide, but that women often choose less definite methods and are more likely to have support and intervention available.

For every male and female death, there are another 10 to 20 attempted suicides.

Queensland has the second highest rate per capita behind the Northern Territory. The suicide rate for males is almost four times that for females.

Suicide now claims more men than the national road toll, yet it gets nowhere near the same attention.

What is unknown is the number of accidents and car crashes that may also have been intentional.

And while our youth suicide rate has been pointed to as the highest in the world, the youth rate is declining. It is actually older men, between 25 and 45, who are consistently the greatest tragedy. The second highest category is men aged 75 and over.

While there are many contributing causes, research, counselling groups and men's groups everywhere point to isolation, loneliness and depression, particularly after relationship breakdowns and job loss, as the major recurring themes in the 25 to 45 age group.

Among youth it is often unemployment, depression, relationship breakdown and substance abuse. The rate is higher in rural areas which are more isolated from support facilities.

Another recurring theme mentioned by researchers and some counselling groups is that we have become a self-absorbed civilisation that has moved away from family and spiritual values; we are no longer a caring society that has the right safety nets to look after its people.

It echoes a similar warning raised recently by Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson.

Mr Anderson referred to the warning signs of crime and youth suicide. Although he claimed the 1960s had started a trend where "young men were fathering children and then refusing to face up to their responsibilities", statistics paint a different picture.

It is a fathers' age group (25-45), rather than youth, which has the highest statistic, and one of the most recurring symptoms reported is grief at being isolated and separated from their partners and children.

The national male youth suicide rate ranks fifth (among in-danger suicide age/gender groups) at 19 per 100,000 population. More than 50 per cent higher are men aged 25 to 34 (32.7 per 100,000) and 35 to 44 (30.2), followed by 75 and over (27.4) and 45 to 54 (22.4).

Of eight academic, community or counselling groups The Sunday Mail spoke to, virtually all pointed to a chronic lack of government funding of research, support and health services for men.

Many are waiting to see how funds will be dispersed from the Federal Government's current third round of funding.

Many claim also there is a social bias against men that often prevents them from being role models, and that boys are not encouraged in schools in the way that "girl power" messages of self-esteem are emphasised.

One female counsellor, who did not want to be named, said that while there was an undeniable need for the Family Court to protect many women,

there was also a strong need for an "unbiased" inquiry into family law and the child-support system to make it fairer and "less brutalising" for men.

She said that with counselling services, "men simply need to feel supported, listened to, understood and encouraged to look at options, rather than feeling blamed or criticised".

There are two schools of thought on suicide discussion. Some groups are reluctant about publicity in case it makes a sensitive situation worse, but others say there is a need for open and frank examination of the issues to remove the cultural stigma and find solutions.

There is a drive towards encouraging people with depression to seek help from counselling groups and for those around them to be more pro-active in helping.

Some community-based initiatives are meeting with encouraging results.

Under the Commonwealth-funded National Suicide Prevention Program, there is a national youth suicide prevention program and a Queensland Health suicide intervention program to locate "at risk" older men in the 75-and-over category and establish support groups for them.

Social workers Jim Thiedeman and Sharon Gambley, who have been working on one pilot program for older men in the Redlands area southeast of Brisbane, say it has been meeting with remarkable success in training people to set up community support groups.

"We are identifying and contacting the men who are experiencing emotional and social isolation," Mr Thiedeman said.

"All of the suicide studies indicate the crux of it is that need for a sense of self worth."

But The Sunday Mail's inquiries to Federal and State government health bodies found there were few, if any, programs targeted specifically at the highest mortality group, men aged 25 to 44, which accounted for half of the total suicide statistics in 2000.

One Queensland Health officer said this group was being incorporated into an "across the age range" approach.

A spokeswoman for the Commonwealth Department for Health and Ageing said a strategy was now being developed to target this age group, in consultation with the National Advisory Council on Suicide Prevention.

"The department is currently assessing what services are being delivered, who is delivering the services, and the gaps in service delivery. It is also considering the priority of settings to target and possible local and national funding initiatives," the spokeswoman said.

The Queensland Government also is now making moves to address the issue.

A spokesman for Queensland Health said the state-wide Mental Health Promotion, Prevention and Early Intervention strategy was set up 18 months ago to deal with mental health and wellbeing "across the board" but there had been no program dealing with the 25 to 44 age group.

However, the State Government's five-yearly review of the Queensland Youth Suicide Prevention Strategy, begun last month, had identified this group as the one with the greatest need.

"In the next five-year term there should be a much stronger focus on that middle-age range," he said.

"The evidence is that is where the problem is."

The spokesman said proposals had gone out to interest groups for consultation before going to Cabinet.

The director of Griffith University's Australian Institute for Suicide Research and Prevention, Professor Diego De Leo, said the high suicide rate among men had been developing in Western countries for much of this century.

"In Australia the problem is particularly strong for men," Professor De Leo said.

"There is a lot of politics in youth suicide in Australia. But the big problem is not youth; below 25 is declining. The big problem is the 25 to 34 age group, which is increasing."

Professor De Leo criticised the lack of government funding put into suicide research.

"I don't know why there is such huge research in areas like biotechnology when suicide causes more deaths than car accidents."

He said that funding was often spent 100-to-one in favour of intervention rather than research.

"Our programs are based on American research, but we're not American.

"We are going to repeat past mistakes if we are not doing more research."

Professor De Leo said men had often been conditioned by culture and society into being reluctant to ask for help, and there was a need for them to be encouraged.

"We have to teach men how to ask for help. Women are able to look around for help; men often want to but they don't.

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