If This Was Happening To Women, We'd Call It A Gender Issue

When it comes to mental health, men and women must get equal and equitable treatment.

02/06/2016 5:41 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:53 PM AEST
Men are three times more likely than women to die by suicide.

Every day in Australia an average of eight people will die by suicide. Six will be male and two female.

If the opposite were true and women were three times more likely to take their own lives than men, we'd probably consider the problem to be an issue of gender equality. So if such an approach would be appropriate for women, why, when we strive to treat men and women equally, do we not seek to address the inequalities men face in the same way we respond to women's inequalities?

When women and girls are on the wrong end of gender gap -- such as lifetime earnings, death at the hands of a partner or representation in positions of power -- the issue is declared a global problem that requires urgent action. So why do we not do the same when men and boys are on the wrong end of a gender gap in areas such as life expectancy, educational outcomes, murder and child custody?

While all of the social issues that disproportionately affect men are worthy of being addressed, the case for closing the gender suicide gap is particularly compelling.

If we could reduce the rate of male suicide to the same rate as female suicide, we would save the lives of around 120 men and boys every month in Australia alone.

Each one of these suicides has a ripple effect, impacting the lives of families, friends and communities in ways that are devastating and often immeasurable.

Of course, none of this means we shouldn't do everything in our power to reduce the rate of female suicide as well, but when men and boys are three times more likely to take their own lives, we can and must do more to tackle the gender inequality that male suicide represents.

Closing the gender suicide gap isn't just about working towards equal outcomes -- it's about ensuring men and women get equal and equitable treatment. One area where we currently fall short is our collective response to men and women at risk of suicide.

In a world where all things masculine are framed as strong, assertive and independent (and all things feminine are seen as vulnerable, passive and intimately connected), the dominant public story about gender issues is that "women HAVE problems and men ARE problems".

You can see this public story playing out in the way that we respond to the problem of male suicide.

We know that men with mental health disorders are underrepresented when it comes to accessing services. When women are underrepresented in fields such as politics or business, we name this issue as a problem women have and ask how we can solve the problem at a systemic level. What we don't do, if we have a socially progressive worldview, is blame women for not taking action to become politicians and business leaders in the first place.

And yet when men are underrepresented, in services for people with mental health issues for example, rather than trying to solve the problem at a systemic level, we hold individual men responsible for not getting help.

Ironically, when we count the number of people with mental disorders who don't access services, we discover that there are slightly more women who fall into this category than men. Yet when we respond to people who aren't getting the help and support they need, our tendency is to fall back on lazy, sexist gender stereotypes.

Because men are expected to be strong, assertive and act independently of others, we locate the problem inside of the men who don't access support and say that the solution lies in men getting better at getting help.

As women, on the other hand, are expected to be vulnerable, passive and intimately connected to others, and therefore we locate the problem outside of the women who need support and say the solution lies in society getting better at helping women.

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"?

Becoming conscious of the gendered ways in which we treat men's and women's issues differently does not mean we should ignore the differences in men's and women's experiences of feeling suicidal.

Treating men and women equitably sometimes means responding to our specific needs in different ways. However, if we can learn one thing from the way we approach women's issues, it is that sometimes you have to name a problem before you can solve it.

That's why naming the problem of men's high suicide rate the "gender suicide gap", and seeking to close that gap, could be one important step towards stopping the unacceptably high levels of male suicide in Australia.


If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 131114 or the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300659467. Further information and general support are available from beyond blue on 1300224636 or MensLine Australia on 1300789978.

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