Why is it important to have policy, framework and strategy for male suicide?

Why is it important to have policy, framework and strategy for male suicide? The question was put to four speakers on Day 3 of the Men’s Health Connected online summit by chair and mental health advocate, Pete Shmigel.

National Mental Health Commissioner Alan Woodward said men were disproportionately affected by a range of health and wellbeing factors in Australia, noting the 2300 men who lost their lives to suicide each year, which accounted for 75% of all suicide cases.

“There is a fundamental issue around quality of life for men in this country,” he stated. “Public policy is one of the ways of addressing an issue for society, and a way of turning problems into directions for action … Public policy is a means to an end, rather than an end in itself.”

Australian Men’s Health Forum CEO Glen Poole highlighted the gendered nature of suicide, reminding listeners that six men would die today from suicide, that three-quarters of all suicides are male and that, “the majority of suicides are working age, average Aussie blokes."

Glen argued forcefully for a gendered-inclusive approach to suicide prevention, adding that there was a lack of empathy for males who are struggling in life.

“Women have problems, men are problems, ” he said. “We are more likely to blame men when they have social problems and more likely to support women when they have social problems. We need a national male suicide policy, absolutely 100%.”

Rebecca Burdick Davies, Director of Advocacy & Government Relations at Suicide Prevention Australia, said public policy means decision-makers come together, coalesce around a position and agree to make a difference. “The dollars follow and change happens.” She raised the breast cancer movement as an example where politics and community had collectively created momentum to drive change, noting that the mortality rate from breast cancer has dramatically declined.

“Male suicide is a staggering problem,” she said. “Public policy is the only way that will shift the dial. Whatever is happening now is not working.”

Ivan Frkovic, the Queensland Mental Health Commissioner, spoke of advances that had been made in developing a state-based strategy for male suicide prevention and the importance of taking a focused approach. “It brings the issue to public attention,” he said.  

Engaging government in taking on the issue of male suicide in a proactive way, starts to influence community perception that this is an important position. While raising awareness is important, does it change behavior?

“Do policies just raise awareness or can we have a policy that changes behavior?” Ivan asked, adding that men needed to have a system they would feel comfortable about approaching.

“Policy without resources is philosophy. We are not here to implement philosophy.”

Should a male suicide prevention policy be a standalone policy or integrated into a wider framework? asked Pete Shmigel of the Men's Health Connected online summit panel. 

Glen Poole acknowledged that a handful of countries had developed a men’s health strategy, and Australia was doing well to have a strategy that extended to 2030. “But no one is doing policy well,” he added.

Glen said male suicide was one of the top five issues reflected in the National Men’s Health Strategy but “it should say health systems should be orientated towards men. To consciously take into account the needs of men across all levels of government.” Queensland, he said, was the only state who had targeted men specifically.

Ivan Frkovic underlined the importance of engaging the corporate and private sector in translating policy into reality, even though “it’s like herding cats”.

But people needed to know how to translate policy into action and how they could contribute, calling for a clear plan and focus for the next 5-10 years, detailing how we can get systems to work together.

Alan Woodward said he believed there were frameworks and strategies in place to address male suicide, “but how do you link to those strategies, what are you going to do? You can have decision-makers in government and business leaders receptive… but then they say what should we do and how? Which men, and in which circumstances and in what way? Because actually, not all men are the same. What needs to be done, for whom and in what way?”

Rebecca Burdick Davies asked that men be called out as a vulnerable group in a national suicide prevention strategy. “We need to see that acknowledgement in national strategy,” adding that Christine Morgan’s role as National Suicide Prevention Advisor to Prime Minister Scott Morrison was not a long-term position, but there needed to be a permanent position in Government to address suicide prevention specifically.

When asked what concerned him most about male suicide prevention, Glen Poole pointed to the lack of advocates for men. “There is a cultural stigma, a resistance, a barrier to advocacy for men. Men are human beings with lived experience who need to be advocated for. Men matter, men count and their voices need to be heard.”

Calling for a male health officer in government (there is a Minister for Women but not Men at Federal level) Glen underlined the importance of taking a social determinants and gender-specific approach to male suicide.

He also said people with lived experience should be listened to, particularly those with raw stories to tell, who may have confronting pathways to suicidality including dark experiences with a range of social issues from separation and unemployment to sexual abuse and alcohol and drug addiction.

“Their voices are missing in the lived experience of male suicide,” said Glen. “We’re not hearing those stories … We can’t keep saying men need to talk, and then not listen.”

Finishing on a positive note, Glen said there was a growing network of men developing programs and initiatives aimed at supporting blokes, for example Tough Guys Book Club, Grab Life By The Balls, the Men's Table and Average Joes. In five years’ time, they may be funded, as has been the happy experience of the Australian Men’s Sheds Movement. But currently, most have no funding at national or local level.

“Most people working in men suicide prevention are women. Let’s get men involved on their terms, let them own the solution,” he said.

“Take what men are doing and what is working and you let it grow.”

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The Men’s Health Connected online summit continues throughout June.

The Men’s Mental Health Movement on Saturday 6 June features leading grassroots men’s mental health projects that are working to improve the lives of men and boys across Australia.

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