Classic Ellis: Male Suicide In Our Time, 2008

For a while I stood on Wynyard station, an hour perhaps, wondering which train I would jump in front of. There seemed no other way. Did I mean it? Or was it just a hypothetical dilemma, the sort we all have sometimes?

To be or not to be. Two of the greatest plays, Hamlet and Death of a Salesman, are about thoughts of suicide, and one of the greatest films, It’s A Wonderful Life, and one of the finer songs, Waltzing Matilda. In my case they were brought on by (yes) a rise in interest rates; our mortgage payments had gone from eight hundred and twenty dollars a week to thirteen hundred a week in six months; and this, in 1987, was hard for a freelance writer with an overworked wife and three children to contemplate. Was, in Hamlet’s dread coinage, self-slaughter an option? It seemed so, or it seemed so to me for that hour on the train platform.

One Australian dairy farmer suicides every four days, Bob Katter revealed in anguish in parliament last month, some of them friends of his. Each interest rate rise makes such men more desperate. Even selling the farm won’t get them out of it; the drought and the ARB have seen to that. A gun in the mouth, a pulled trigger, seems a better alternative. This may well be so.

In ancient Rome committing suicide was a way of sending a message to the Emperor: your curst regime, oh Caesar, has driven me to this. These days suicide bombing does much the same work: you infidels’ foul presence on our holy ground has driven me to this, American scum. Please go away.

Young and mid-aged males are most of those who suicide, during high school exams, failed love affairs, unemployment, retrenchment, divorce, bankruptcy, small business ventures going bust.

Five Australian men suicide each day and only one woman. Why is this so?

Well, men have images of themselves, as conqueror, provider, breadwinner, football star, self-made billionaire, chick magnet, local hero, which, if they fail at, darken their mood. There are so many things they can fail at, so many contests they are in, so many medals they will not win, so many promises to keep, that the gun in the drawer comes to mind pretty frequently, or its equivalent.

How many deaths by car crash are witting acts of suicide by mid-aged males, self-slaughter? We will never know.

The American concept ‘loser’ has a lot to do with it. A loser is a forty-year-old man who is not a billionaire - or an Olympic gold medallist, or pitcher for the Red Sox, or CEO at Disney, or a Hollywood hunk getting ten million dollars a film. Ninety-eight per cent of American men are losers therefore, and can buy hand-guns easily on Main Street in any leafy town. Sometimes from retrenchment to murder-suicide or marriage break-up to college massacre takes only a couple of days.

How many botched bank hold-ups are witting acts of self-slaughter, of topping oneself, of losing it altogether? We will also never know. How many suburban sieges, plane hijackings, deaths by alcoholic poisoning or medication overdose, knife fights in pubs after midnight? Always, as in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal the black-cowled tempter Death stalks you, the exhausted male, smiles behind your shoulder in the shaving mirror.

Most men who have gone broke, lost their woman, lost their children, think of doing away with themselves. Disgraced Test cricketers probably do so too, football superstars, gaoled CEOs like Rene Rivkin and Kenneth Lay. In a film my wife Anne Brooksbank wrote, Moving On, about a farmer forced off the land in 1975, is the loyal wife’s bleak line, ‘You spend your life tiptoeing around a man’s pride.’ It resounds now still.

The women watch as the men crack up. They hide the whisky bottle. They hide the rifle. They join the prayer group. They make the begging phone calls. They investigate the necessary medication. They cop the odd belt in the face. They stand by their man. This is what women, or many women, do. They cope, they deal with the children, they rally round. They bury their egos and keep the show on the road.

But men are warriors in the end. They need the testing battles that will prove their worth or end their lives. They are challenge-seeking animals, heat-seeking missiles, fools for pointless contest. They need the victory at darts, at pool, at horse-betting, marlin fishing, stock-market speculation that affirms them. They need that struggle with the numbers which proves if they are losers, or if they are not.

Is economic rationalism a cause of male suicide? Of course it is. Any change of address, any loss of job, any default in a mortgage payment, any AWA, any office downsizing that targets you or your lifestyle, is a sanity-threatening trauma, an ego-diminishing kick in the guts, a personal catastrophe. Ask any unemployed male from Leeton, Cessnock, Elizabeth or Beaconsfield who is living elsewhere now and looking for work. Anything that takes you away from your community, your siblings, your congregation, your local team, your grandchildren, your mates in the pub, your certainty of sexual relief is a suicide-inducement zone. ‘Going where the work is’, for most country town men, is the first paragraph of a suicide note to their extended family, the cousins and aunts and uncles they won’t see much any more.

Does the ARB, then, increase the suicide rate in men? Of course it does; three or four times a year, it seems.
Keating’s bland smug phrase ‘The recession we had to have’ really means, when decrypted, ‘The suicides we had to have’. The able-bodied men we sacrifice to Moloch on an altar of burning bank-notes, and their wives and children thrown on the pyre as the flames increase.

C. Northcote Parkinson once in an essay said a civilisation’s success could be measured by adding up the suicide rate, the alcoholism rate, divorce rate, road death rate, cost of health care, number of college graduates, number of deaths in babyhood, average age at death, and so on.

By these means he unsurprisingly named the world-wide winner as Holland. But suicide he ranked very high in the red column of his numbering.

And Australia today has the second highest suicide rate in the world.

How are we doing?

We have the highest mortgage instalments in world history too. There may be a connection, oh my comrades, oh my fellow Australians, there really may, between an ARB that ‘fights inflation’ by raising the cost of living (by eighty dollars a week this fiscal year thus far) and the farmer Bob Katter knows who blows his brains out; there may just be a connection.

Prove that I lie.

Leave a comment ?


  1. Excellent article, Bob, I’ll return to it after walking my Jack Russell..he’s getting impatient.

  2. And yet that socialist paradise Sweden has the HIGHEST rate of suicides in the world… discuss.

    • You’re such a liar. Sweden has a normal suicide rate, and honest doctors. They do not call it ‘accidental overdose’ or ‘death by misadventure’ but what it is. They have also, for fifty years now, included in their figures what we would call voluntary euthanasia.

      Go fuck yourself, you jackal capitalist.

      Get out of my life.

      • I (partially) withdraw… WHO figures show Sweden, while not the highest (Lithuania has that dubious honour with a staggering 61 men per 100,000 committing suicide, a death toll so grotesque it passes all argument). But Sweden is higher, and Finland, and Norway, and Cuba…

        There’s very little percentage comparing hysterectomies. One death is a tragedy, and the difference between no suicides and one suicide is the same tragic gap as 999 suicides and a thousand. But euthanasia alone doesn’t explain why three times as many men as women die by their own hand.

        I’m no more going to fuck myself than I am going to accept being called a jackal capitalist. “Most men who have gone broke, lost their woman, lost their children, think of doing away with themselves… any loss of job, any default in a mortgage payment, any AWA, any office downsizing that targets you or your lifestyle, is a sanity-threatening trauma, an ego-diminishing kick in the guts, a personal catastrophe”, you say, and rightly, and I’ve not only lost jobs and lost women and faced ruin, public shaming and worse, I’ve considered the ultimate escape, too, and not lightly.

        But Swedes lose their woman, and Lithuanians, and South Koreans and Hungarians and Chinese Swiss and Frenchmen and Uruguayans. They lose their women and drink too much and lose jobs.

        Maybe the reason lies more in what our society does, in putting expectations on men of success and wealth and status and fame, and what id does not do in providing no culturally acceptable way for us to weep, to mourn, to be weak and broken and at the end of our rope without swinging lifeless from it.

        I don’t know, I don’t know.

        Far fewer men, it seems, and I could be wrong, kill themselves in Albania or Greece or Peru or Venezeula. Why is this?

        I don’t know, and I would like to know.

  3. Poignant essay, Bob. And I’m on the verge of returning to Australia after 7 years in Asia, the latest chapter of my life deliberately chosen as an escape from the madness brought on in the aftermath of a failed marriage, loss of contact with children, redundancy, slippage into dependency on the bottle, attenuation of friendships, and several attempts at suicide, some theatrical, some deadly serious, all brought on by the incessant and remorseless indwelling and self-flagellation and depression and unwillingness to unhinge my mental universe from its preoccupation with these historical events.

    And my brother also, an early onset sufferer of Parkinson’s disease, who watched as his life fell apart, his business ruined, his second marriage failed when his stoic wife reached the end of her tether and his medication changes wrought psychosis on top of his physical ailments, who then found himself involuntarily committed to the psych ward of a NSW regional hospital and then farmed out to community housing where in his utter aloneness stepped off a chair with a rope around his neck, to end on the floor weeping with existential bewilderment after the hanging attachment broke.

    And my father’s cousin, who shot himself on the first anniversary of his only child’s death at the age of 8, hit by a car travelling at highway speed, and both of them found by their mother and wife, who has lived 50 more years with the imprinted memories of these tragic deaths of the man & boy in her life. She could have gone mad, should have, but didn’t, and instead married my father after the early death of my mother, and spent the next 30 years caring for him, a survivor of the Burma railroad, a prisoner attached to the Konya camp, where the men slaved infamously on Hellfire Pass. Tragedy touches us all, in various ways. Thanks for raising this topic, and now I’m weeping, alone, in China, and about to return to Australia to face my demons, again.

    • Canguro, I too would like to offer something: my praise for this outstanding piece, my best wishes for your good health, my respect for keeping the demons at bay, and finally my thanks for giving me two quite remarkable images; images I didn’t think in a million years would cross my path on this Wednesday afternoon - the “existential bewilderment” and the thought of a man “weeping, alone in China”.

      Fucking incredible how a stranger can create such a deep imprint.

      Le me give you something in return. I was 28 and suffered a breakdown. I was placed into a psych hospital, in a room with a stranger.
      During those first few weeks, barely able to register my own name, I had enough sense to tie my favourite red flannelette shirt around my ankle and fix it to the end of the bed.
      I thought it would keep me safe.

      It did.

      Face them Canguro. Face them.
      They are but chimera’s and are no match for the elan vital than sits impatiently in your heart.

      Thanks again for this quite remarkable post.

  4. Thank you do much for this beautifully written contribution.

    I would like, if it’s all right with you, to put it up in these columns, under Male Suicide In Our Time (2).

    We should talk more of these things.

    • Bob, thanks for your words, and I’ll accept the offer of the beer and look forward to it. I’m assuming my email address is visible to you, so suggest you pen a brief reply so that we can arrange a meetup. FYI, prior to the behaviours referred to in this piece I spent nearly 20 years on the peninsular. Come mid-May, on my return, I’ll be staying awhile in Newport.

  5. The female suicide rate is lower, because women are more resilient, the idea of leaving kids behind is often the main reason why women soldier on…
    Annie’s comment about women dancing around male ego is spot on.

    The Dutch people are too pragmatic to even contemplate suicide; they find solutions to all world’s problems, they also don’t drink to excess.

    • Few people respect the pragmatic solutions that the Dutch migrants came up with to solve their problems in South Africa, Helvi.
      I do not like your suggestion that fewer men would commit suicide if only they were more resilient. It seems to be trivialising their despair.

  6. First, you are wrong about Sweden Mr Ellis. The difference in statistics is how coroners record death. Scandinavia has the highest rates of suicide, and you’ll note that in catholic countries like Ireland and Italy, there are almost no ‘reported’ suicides. Likewise Muslim countries do not record suicide, so be wary of international data.

    Second, you’ll also note that during the Depression, suicide rates were low, as they were during WW II. Fewer people do not take their lives during war, disasters and depressions. The evidence is clear on this, you can research it from SPA and other organisations.

    If you read the evidence, suicide is connected to flourishing and languishing. Thus rich people take their lives equally to poor people - it depends on many other factors. If suicide was economic, then you would see fluctuations mirror economic circumstance and rich people wouldn’t take their own lives. Yet there is absolutely NO EVIDENCE (sorry, if I shout maybe you’ll believe me) linking socio-economic factors to suicide, although there is a causal association.

    Third, there is no evidence - NONE - linking suicide to rental accommodation versus ownership. People who don’t have a mortgage also take their own life, as do people in rental units. Statistically, this is not a factor.

    Please read the literature as this is a very serious issue. Yes, some people take their lives when they go broke or fail in other ways, but given that Australia has one of the world’s highest youth suicide rates, there is absolutely no evidence that interest rates or the economy play a part in 15 year old school girls hanging themselves.

    I don’t need to prove you wrong – every suicideologist in the country reading this will, though.

    • Agree. A 15-year-old girl, my cousin, doing well at school, tries to do away herself. She recovers and finishes her schooling, away from the city. Everything going for her, as they say, and the family still doesn’t know the reason. In the genes, sometimes, mother-to-son-to-daughter, they were told. Seven years on, she’s okay.

    • The high lines of latitude, show greater rates of suicide because of daylight hours. They also show up higher rates of multiple sclerosis because of same.Highly intertwined, is the rate of high depression that accompanies. It has been found by science and medical test, that lighting comprising the full spectrum of sunlight, placed in abodes of geriatric care has freed the age of depressions markedly to extreme. There is even a scientific name of it that escapes me.
      Undeniable effects on dementia and other illness have also been noted.
      I have’nt enough space, or time,(he who makes no mistakes unless flurrying a post on mine, awaits,) to explain my observations of suicide in other matters except to say the lower class live with it, more the male, highly than other but that should not be taken into context of Terrance’s other noticed discrepancies.But social clime , economic, identity,sexstature etc, and other, apply.

      I have been cast out by pedantics over speech etc and highly claim the ground of the mentally deficient and disabled prejudiced. A law suit is not out of the question.It’s fun being and playing under the shadow of part of Australia’s history, i’ll do ok, until then you just Bob right down and kiss my ass till Anzac day.

  7. And more …

    Tasmania has,comparativly, the highest youth suicide rate in Australia and one of the highest in the country - yet housing is cheaper than in Sydney, Canberra, Brisbane and Perth.

    How can you account for this Mr Ellis? A cheap place to live with a lower cost of living than NSW, QLD and the ACT, yet higher suicide.

  8. Such a complex and difficult subject. Thank you Bob and thank you to all contributors as well.

    A special thank you to Canguru; yes and to the Cat too - peace, Cat?

    I actually wonder how many men have NEVER contemplated suicide.

    Life has many twists and turns, and if things turn disastrously - long term unemployment, ruination financially, deep black thoughts over a lost love or a severe personal failure - suicide is the ultimate way out.

    I once had an older female acquaintance who committed suicide at age 50; her ten-year old son came home from school to find her body. The child was so mortified and horrified that I imagine he may still have nightmares, and feelings of dread at the ultimate rejection.

    And yes, I wonder how many car “accidents” are actually suicide, as a car swerves in front of a semi-trailer or a train at a level crossing. Or farmers whose tractor overturns.

    On a different note, the statistics are suspect in countries in which suicide is beyond the pale - whether stauch catholic countries or Moslem countries.

    Thank you all.

  9. I hope ‘our’ jim is not too upset for being banned from the Ellis Table. I remember him talking about his depression on the original Unleashed, saying that he had clawed his way out of many a hole…
    For some people these on-line communities are their only friends, their life-line. Maybe Bob could give us some guide lines about how to conduct ourselves here, I worry about jim.

  10. Jim’s a survivor - he’s okay.

    Also, women have been encouraged to leave marriages, usually after the men have given them their children, for no other reason than wanting ‘something different’.

    That won’t go down too well, but it happens an awful lot.

  11. We cotton wool our children, and life comes as a shock?

    Nobody has mentioned the Ice epidemic. A lot could be said about this. I think it exists in such a sub-cultural realm that no one is aware of how evil the shit is and how much damage it is doing.

    If you think things are bad now, wait till the next generation comes along.

    ‘You spend your life tiptoeing around a man’s pride.’ Bleak a line it may be, but so it does go. My Nan did that for so long, told me before she died she couldn’t hack the guilt of leaving. My Mum has done the tiptoeing though, round a crumbling man with a heart of gold; that story will sell millions and I’ll write it one day.

    I picked up a book in a library once - a collection of stories from women who had gone through abortions. I reckon a collection of stories from men from around the country who have suffered from mental illness would be a great read, and might even do some good.

    I’m glad I discovered your blog Mr. Ellis. Thanks for the great read, in this fucking vacuum you are a fair dinkum relief.

  12. To all those who commented on my effort, Cat & Doug Quixote in particular, thank you, and I want to stress that my comments were in relation to the past, and not the present. Whatever else one might say about spending years living in China, one of the positives is that the immersion forces one to live in and focus on the now, so to speak, and the years of utter distress have receded into what’s now best described as as memories of times past.

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