If the suicide rate is a measure of alienation within a culture, as the 19th-century sociologist Émile Durkheim argued, then the “sexual liberation” policies of the 1970s, easy divorce and social recognition of ex-nuptial births, ushered in a dark passage of alienation and despair for Australian boys and men.
During World War II suicide rates had halved for males and fell by a third for females. The male rate per 100,000 males in the population had been between 18 and 20 from 1903 to 1933, but fell to 10; and the female rate fell from 5 or 6, to 4.
It is plausible that conscription of young men and “manpower” (compulsory co-option of civilians to the workforce) for young women reduced the problems of uncertainty in the transition to adulthood that so beset the late teens and early twenties, the age group in which suicide rates are highest. The fall in the war years was most striking in young males aged 15 to 19 years, suggesting that what this age group needs to make it, if not happy, at least secure, is not liberation but compulsion in a direction firmly set by society. (Primitive societies provide for this need with initiation ceremonies which certify a place in the adult world.)
By 1953, seven years later, rates in both sexes had risen about half way to their former levels. For men overall, by the 1970s and early ’80s, the rate had risen to 16 per 100,000, and the end of the century saw a return of the suicide rate to the high of the beginning of the century, of about 21 suicides per 100,000 males.
For women overall, apart from a peak in the early 1960s attributable to insufficient regulation of the new barbiturate antidepressants, the rate of suicide in the second half of the 20th century did not vary significantly from the 5 per 100,000 of the first.
The overall figures, however, disguise a change in the age profile of suicide which indicates that youth liberation, instigated by young people of the ’60s and intended to benefit that age group, was far from beneficial for the following generations who came to adulthood without the stable (controlling) family backgrounds the permissive generation had set themselves to destroy.
While the stability of the overall female suicide rate suggests that the policy changes of the last 30 years, designed to implement women’s liberation, neither improved nor harmed women’s mental health, suicide rates for girls aged 15 to 19 showed a definite deterioration: for the period 1960 to 2000, they varied between 5 and 10, instead of around 5. However, those for 20- to 24-year-olds retained their pattern for the century of varying slightly below the 5 per 100,000 level.
Sexual liberation’s promotion of immediate sexual gratification made a false promise of long-term benefit to both boys and young men. The suicide rate for 15-19 year-old boys rarely touched 15 before 1960; but since then it has risen steadily, passing 20 by 1970, 25 by 1980, 35 by 1990, and reaching 40 in 1997.
The figure for 20-24 year-olds also rose, in bursts and plateaux rather than steadily. After fluctuating around 5 from 1921 to 1969, it shot up in 1970 to vary around 10 for a decade, followed by another sharp rise to between 15 and 20 for the 1990s. Suicide rates for young men are an index of something seriously wrong in our handling of male socialisation.
Clearly, social changes in the last four decades of the 20th century did not promote the well-being of teenage boys. Equally clearly, this deterioration coincided with the decades of major growth in divorce and single motherhood, which leaves boys in households without their fathers and without a caring adult man.
The “best interests of the child” were claimed to be taken into account in divorce settlements, but this was a hollow gesture as the child’s best interests were never invoked to deny a divorce. It had been argued that children would benefit by being removed from a discordant family situation, but this was not borne out as parents fought more bitterly over issues of custody and access than ever before, and research showed that open discord between parents most commonly broke out only when the issue of divorce had been raised.
It is probably unfortunate that, at the same time as this dearth of men in families occurred, secondary education became predominantly coeducational, so that what might have been a site for male support and leadership was feminised and therefore useless for that purpose.
To exacerbate the problem, retention in education increased so that young males remained incarcerated in a feminised world, rather than moving, in their mid-teens as previously, out into the workforce where they found male mentors and role models and a masculine style of discipline.
Rearing of boys in the absence of men was meant, in feminist theory, to make them gentler and more like women, but in fact crime statistics show that they have become more violent, both towards others and towards themselves.
Frequent conferences and task forces on youth suicide have produced nothing to control this epidemic. Despite the scientifically identified association between single parenting and youth suicide, campaigns to encourage parents to abjure their own liberated fancies in order to protect their children’s lives have never been proposed.
Early identification of depression and counselling continue to be the weak fall-back recommendation, despite their by now obvious ineffectuality. Youth suicide is supposed to be reducible in spite of the absence of fathers, but this may be a psychological impossibility.
Stephen Biddulph, a psychologist, in his book Manhood (“Men are deeply unhappy, deeply lost”), quoted statistics from the 1991 Census that suicide is the leading cause of death for men aged less than 60, ahead of road deaths, heart attack and cancer, killing one in 34 Australian men; but, still captive to the sensitive new age man fashion, he advocated “setting men free”, by which he meant free to behave as if they were women.
Poor delineation of masculine identity, role and image is more likely to be a cause of the problem; increasing it cannot be the solution. Suicide in young men must be considered a crisis of our time.
The liberalisation of divorce law was a central policy of the progressive Left in the late 1960s and early 1970s. No-fault divorce had already been achieved with the Matrimonial Causes Act 1959-66, but entailed a five-year waiting period.
In its wake the divorce rate rose by two-thirds from 90 per 100,000 population in 1953 to 153 in 1973, then, following the Family Law Act 1975, it promptly doubled to a steady 300 per 100,000 a year. With the Family Law Act 1975, the permissive goal of divorce on demand was fully achieved: one partner could obtain a divorce on the grounds of one year’s cessation of sexual relations with no recourse by the other partner and no consideration of children in the family.
Suicide of men in the middle years of adulthood is strongly associated, both by report and statistically, with the breakdown of marriage and consequent alienation from children.
Under the heading “Suicides soaring for men on Coast” (Sydney Morning Herald, November 16, 1996), the chairman of a local suicide committee was quoted as saying: “The coroners’ reports show us alcohol abuse and failing marriages are among the problems these people have faced. Another is dissatisfaction with divorce settlements. Sixteen of the  men who have died in the past 43 weeks have been aged between 25 and 44 years of age, and that is a lot of fathers that have left families in a state of trauma.”
However, the director of the Australian Institute for Suicide Research and Prevention, being an academic, could not stomach this, and preferred to attribute the high rate of suicides to rural decline. The Central Coast, the area in question, being within commuter reach of Sydney, is unaffected by rural decline; it is, in fact, a major growth area.
In 2002, the ABC radio program Life Matters reported a civil resistance movement of men who felt unjustly treated in divorce settlements in regard to child access or maintenance. The president of a helpline association for such men said, referring to the hundreds of calls it received every week, “It’s carnage out there!”
The Penrith Press (October, 2002), a local paper of Sydney’s west, reported local research (from the University of Western Sydney) showing that separated men are six times more likely to suicide than married men, with the worst rates in the age group up to 29 years. “Relationship breakdown and divorce are leaving many men emotionally broken and unable to cope. … Many feel an acute loss of family life and their self-identity as a parent.”
These reports highlight a tragic influence of liberation social theory on personal lives. Attachment (in psychologist John Bowlby’s sense) is designed to nurture the perennial passions of domestic love. In our liberated society, while it retains all its innate intensity, it has become dysfunctional. It damages rather than nurtures.
Men’s suicides, which include taking the lives of their children, are a late 20th and early 21st century phenomenon and a tragically common occurrence. Divorce of their parents cannot by any stretch of the imagination be said to have improved the lives of these child victims.
If suicide kills more men aged less than 60 than cancer and heart attack, clearly it is responsible for more premature deaths than smoking. But there is no sign of a public health campaign against divorce as the great killer to match the campaign against smoking.
“Divorce Kills” would not be an acceptable slogan for liberation sociologists.
Dr Lucy Sullivan has written widely on literature, cultural matters, family, taxation and poverty. This article is an extract from her forthcoming book, False Promises: Sixties Philosophy Against the Church: A Sociological Memoir With Statistics, 1900-1995.