The one thing about male suicide that ABC’s Man Up is missing

By Glen Poole

It’s a few days since I watched Episode 1 of ABC’s Man Up, a three-part documentary that sends Gus Worland “on a mission to save Aussie men from their biggest killer…themselves”.

Since then, I’ve been trying to find a way to constructively articulate the single, most vital point, the program seems to be missing. The people behind “Man Up” say they what to “kick-start a national conversation about Aussie male suicide” and I want to honour that intention and make a contribution to his conversation in a way that can make a difference and help Stop Male Suicide in Australia.

So firstly, let me say that Man Up is probably the best attempt at addressing a men’s issue through mainstream media I have ever seen. It’s funded by people who care about men’s health (Movember); it was conceived by academics with a track record of studying men’s health (Professor Jane Pirkis and the Ten To Men study); it’s taken time to talk with some of the people with experience of working with men on at daily basis (e.g. the excellent MATES In Construction) and its presented by a populist, media personality, who’s an everyday bloke, with universal appeal and a great big heart.

Worland has also shown his determination to stay focused on the issue, as he now volunteers with Lifeline in Sydney and is calling on the government to create a taskforce to stop male suicide. So this isn’t just another program from a bunch of jobbing doco makers who have already moved on to the next project. The funders, the academics who instigated the project and the presenter himself, remain committed to stopping male suicide.

So far so good: so what’s missing?

Well male suicide is a complex issue and many things are being missed by this program as we might expect (there’re only so many angles you can cover in this kind of format), but the most glaring omission is the failure to highlight how “The System” fails to stop male suicide.

To be clear, I’m not saying “The System” causes male suicide and the only way to stop male suicide is to change the system. I’m saying, “The System” plays a major role in helping and hindering our efforts to stop male suicide and if we don’t examine the problems “The System” causes, we can’t fix them.

I’ll highlight how Man Up fails to tackle the role of “The System” in the high male suicide rate in a moment, but let’s look at the other factors first.

As I discuss in our book—You Can Stop Male Suicide—there are four fundamental structures that contribute to male suicide:

  • Behavioural/Biological
  • Psychological
  • Cultural/Relational
  • Systemic

Every significant attempt to prevent male suicide focuses on all four elements in some way and it is the significance we give to each of those factors that reveals how we think about male suicide.

I’m not going to cover biological factors in this post. There are some interesting ideas about how men’s greater risk of suicide may be, at least in part, biological, which I’ll explore another time.

I’ll start with behavioural explanations, which is where most people start. Anyone who tells you the reason more men die by suicide is because, for example, they use more violent means, or they don’t get help, or they don’t talk about their feelings, is focusing on behavioural factors.

Then there are people who give a psychological explanation for male suicide, arguing that men choose the behaviour of suicide over talking about their feelings or getting help, because of macho beliefs about what a “real man” is.

Some people expand this line of thinking to a cultural level and blame “macho culture” or “bloke culture” or “traditional masculinity” and argue we if we change what it means to be a man, at a cultural level, then men will feel able to get help and talk about their feelings and won’t die by suicide.

At a systemic level, the general assumption of those who focus on culture change is that the system works just fine, the problem is that men are too macho to turn to the system (and others) for the help that is already available.

My own view is that male suicide is a solution-based behaviour. Men who take their lives, genuinely believe that suicide is the best possible solution to the problems they are facing. The pathway to suicide takes men from having problems, to trying to fix problems, to trying to cope with problems, to seeing suicide as a solution to their problems.

When men face problems they can neither fix, nor cope with, their risk of suicide rises. So in simple terms, when it comes the role of “The System”, we need to ask two key questions of the social, political, legal, financial and economic systems that shape men’s lives:

  • How does “The System” increase men’s risk of experiencing problems that can lead to suicide?
  • How does “The System” fail to help men at risk of suicide?

Those who see suicide as a cultural issue, rather than a social issue, argue that if we want to change the behaviour of male suicide, we need to change the belief that “real men” don’t talk or get help, by changing masculinity at a cultural level. This is the familiar line of logic that episode one of Man Up follows, albeit in a more detailed, entertaining and mainstream way than normally happens.

Is Masculinity Broken or The System?

In an interview to promote episode one, Worland described masculinity as broken. Note he doesn’t say the system is broken, but masculinity, giving a clear signal that the Man Up team views male suicide as a cultural problem, not a systemic issue.

“The definition of masculinity is broken,” says Worland, “the idea of what it takes to be a man is all wrong”.

This view is echoed by the two academics interviewed in the first episode. The first, Dr Michael Flood, is Co-Director of a research centre whose purpose is to “advance the critical study of men and masculinity”. A search of Flood’s research centre website on the word “suicide” produces only one result, for an academic who wrote a paper on “queer youth suicide”.

As a quick aside, the absence of any apparent focus on high suicidality among males who are gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex in the Man Up series, is also missing from the program and is something I may return to another time.

For now, my point is, if you talk to a research centre that doesn’t study male suicide, but whose primary aim it is to “advance the critical study of men and masculinity” and ask them “Why are so many men killing themselves” then it’s entirely predictable that they will respond with an answer that is critical of men and masculinity.

Not surprisingly, Dr Flood’s answer was: “I think it is about masculinity”.

While Flood’s contribution to the program was interesting, it wasn’t rooted in any apparent experience, expertise or investment in preventing male suicide, which is what the program is about.

The same couldn’t be said of the second academic interviewed in episode one. Professor Judy Proudfoot works at the Black Dog Institute, which aims “to significantly reduce the incidence of mental illness and suicide, remove the stigma and empower all people to live the most mental healthy life possible”.

Hers was a more serious contribution to the conversation, both in tone and relevance. I couldn’t help notice that while Dr Flood was interviewed at a blokey barbers and took park in some jokey, sports-style commentary of Gus hugging men in the street, Professor Proudfoot was afforded a sombre interview, sitting at her desk.

I wondered, briefly, if the producers had tried to interview the Professor getting her legs waxed with Gus or knocking back a few beers, watching the AFL Grand Final? But I digress.

The point is, that while it was predictable that Dr Flood, a professional critic of men and masculinity, would say it is the culture of traditional masculinity that causes male suicide, you might expect a different answer from the Black Dog Institute.

Fixing The System Could Reduce Male Suicide 20% 

Black Dog has recently launched a multi-million pound suicide prevention pilot called LifeSpan, which adopts what is known as “The Systems Approach”. It’s a highly ambitious project, which they claim will reduce suicide in target areas by more than 20%.

So you would think that if you had a new “Systems Approach” to suicide prevention that could reduce suicide by 20% and someone asked how we can stop male suicide, you would immediately point to “The System” and say:

“Look, we don’t have all the answers, but our research predicts that if we tackle what’s not working in “The System”, we can reduce male suicide by 20% or more, which would be a great start. Now, let me explain to you exactly what’s not working in “The System” for men, that we’re going to fix with our new project LifeSpan”.

Surely, if the whole point of your TV program is to tackle Aussie male suicide and you come across a team of experts who are spending millions of dollars on suicide prevention AND they say they know how to reduce male suicide by more than 20% by changing “The System”, you’d want to ask them what we need to change to make that happen?

So having explored masculinity as the cause of suicide with Dr Flood at some length, what did Gus ask Professor Proudfoot? Did he say “I was getting a haircut with my mate Floodo, and he says masculinity causes male suicide, but your mob reckons you can stop 20% of suicides just by changing the system! How does that work Proudy?”

Alas no! Sadly he promoted a belief that seems all too common amongst people who believe masculinity is the primary cause of male suicide, namely, the idea that if men changed and became more like women, there’d be less male suicide. His question to Professor Proudfoot was simply this: “What are women doing right?”

Closing The Gender Suicide Gap Would Save 30 Men’s Lives A Week! 

There is a huge gender suicide gap in Australia. Closing the gender suicide gap, by reducing male suicide to the rate of female suicide, would save the lives of 30 men a week and save the Australian economy, $9.3B a year.

There is also a gender pay gap in Australia. Can you imagine the outcry if a journalist on the ABC explored the pay gap by asking a male academic: “So what are men doing right?”

Part of the reason we can’t stop male suicide, is we keep victim-blaming men for the problem, even when we have an opportunity to talk to experts who say we can reduce male suicide by more than 20%, by changing “The System”.

I don’t know if Professor Proudfoot was either given, or asked for, an opportunity to explain how the Black Dog Institute’s LifeSpan project aims to stop male suicide, but this is the answer she gave to Worland’s question:

“Women talk about their problems more often that men, they let people see that they are distressed and they ask for help and so the suicide attempts can be interrupted.”

Traditional Masculinity Is Failing Men 

This is a good example of the argument that men’s behaviour (not asking for help) causes suicide, which was followed by a psychological explanation of why men behave this way:

“Because men who hold this really strong traditional forms of masculinity want to be self sufficient, they don’t want to talk about their feelings or even acknowledge that they have feelings, don’t want to burden other people with their problems, feel that they should be able to solve all of their issues and problems on their own….extreme traditional forms of stoic masculinity are certainly failing men.’

And then I waited on the edge of my seat for the Professor to add: “However, at a systemic level, our research shows that if we change the way we help suicidal men, we can reduce male suicide by more than 20% as our new multi-million pound LifeSpan pilot will demonstrate.”

But no, we cut to Gus, no longer talking to the Professor, but now clearly convinced that changing the culture of traditional masculinity is the way to stop male suicide.

“It’s so powerful that guys are being pushed to suicide rather than saying ‘fuck manning up, I need help’”, said Gus to the camera. “So if we want to save lives, we have to change this old-fashioned mindset first”.

To be clear, the LifeSpan systems approach that Black Dog says will reduce male suicide by 20% comprises nine, distinct systemic changes and none of these nine strategies focus on changing “this old-fashioned mindset” of traditionally masculinity.

This idea that there is nothing wrong with the system, it’s men and masculinity that’s the problem and if only men change and fit in with the system, there’d be no suicide, is just more of the same “old-fashioned mindset” about male suicide.

Women HAVE Problems and Men ARE Problems 

The Man Up program is brilliant in so many ways and Gus is a fantastic figurehead on a touching personal journey with a burning passion to make a difference for men and boys’ but there is nothing new in arguing that male suicide happens because men don’t talk about their feelings or get help.

As I wrote in The Guardian last month:

“When it comes to suicide and gender, we’re great at pointing the finger at “blokes” for not talking, but don’t reflect on the irony that while many of us can talk freely and fluently about women’s issues [we] find talking about men’s issues a bit awkward and uncomfortable.”

As I wrote in The Telegraph (UK) last year:

How can we help men talk, if we won’t talk about men’s issues?

And as I said in The Huffington Post in June:

“In a world where we aim to treat men and women equally, how much more effective would we be at preventing male suicide if we stopped saying “why are men so useless at getting help” and we started asking “why are we so useless at giving men help”?

There are a number of social issues that affect men more profoundly in terms of suicide risk, including unemployment, relationship issues, being separated from their kids, being a victim of violence or abuse, alcohol and substance abuse, long-term illness, homelessness, social isolation and mental health disorders.

If we want to stop male suicide, we have to tackle the social issues that put men at greater risk of suicide at a systemic level and not just focus on the comfortable but bogus claim that traditional masculinity is the primary cause of suicide.

Yes masculinity is constantly evolving, so supporting and empowering men and boys to grow and evolve and navigate that change, when they want to, is a hugely positive thing to do. And part of that growth requires us to evolve beyond the binary, cultural view of gender that “women HAVE problems and men ARE problems”.

It’s “The System” Stupid! 

The high male suicide rate is not simply a measure of men being problems and needing to change, it is a sign that men have problems and we need to change “The System”.

There are experts out there who say changing “The System” can reduce male suicide by more than 20%. Now I’m not convinced that the LifeSpan approach will be as effective for men as it is for women, for reasons I’ll explore another time. But none-the-less, the dominant thinking in suicide prevention in Australia is that the best way to stop suicide is to change “The System”—and I fully support that view.

And that is the one crucially, vital, life-saving piece of the male suicide prevention jigsaw that Man Up is missing……it’s not simply men and masculinity that needs to change if we want to stop male suicide, it’s “The System” we need to change.

I am hugely grateful to the Man Up team for starting this important, national conversation and for stretching my thinking about what works and what doesn’t work, in our efforts to stop male suicide.

I am a great believer in the view that “none of us is as smart as all of us” and so the more people get involved in this conversation, the more likely we are to agree on productive answers to the question: “How do we stop male suicide?”

For now, I look forward to episodes two and three of Man Up to see how the narrative evolves and the big question I will be asking myself is how do we persuade people, with the power to make the biggest difference, that we need to change “The System” if we want to stop male suicide?

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