Suicide and Manhood



Fatherhood and Parenting
Author Michael Kidd

Lawyer and tutor Michael Kidd sees Society’s failure to provide a passage to manhood as a factor in high rates of male suicide. He recalls how one group of fathers and sons took a big step forward

Recent surveys across 14 industrialised nations have found Australia to be the leader in suicide rates among 15 to 24 year olds and that the rate is significantly higher for males in this age group than women. Some recent literature suggests that the nature of the male role in society itself may be the cause of the tendency for males to suicide more often than females. The breakdown of males' role in society is also a failure of leadership between the generations of males and their offspring. The father son relationship has been called the most wounded relationship.

My thesis is that the failure of society to promote this passage of young men to manhood has contributed significantly to the higher suicide rates among men and young boys. The increase of suicides has happened at the same time as a marked upheaval in men's gender roles. Intervention by way of re-education and promotion of father son workshops would be more helpful in the long term to lower the suicide rate. In Tasmania in January 1997, I helped run a camp with the theme of promoting the father son connection and surveyed the participants for the their suicide idealisation and whether the camp made an impact on this idealisation.

If boys today do suffer from "father hunger" : is it simplistic to suppose that if boys spent more time with their fathers that boys' relating would proceed along the course of better relating and integration.? The reasons against this occurring could be several:

a) bad role models handed down from generation to generation of men,

b) lack of a structure for men who have gone through a spiritual initiatory experience, to inculcate the same in younger men.

c) simple absence of men from the formative periods of children\rquote s upbringing.

Steve Biddulph points to the fact that when boys go to primary school there are very few males ...the only males in this female area are perhaps the headmaster and the gardener. However with both parents working these days children go into day care and lose contact with the mother, so both sexes stand to suffer. Bly rightly points out that females are also suffering from lack of contact with their mothers.

Father hunger can be summarised: where the father figure is seen as:

a) being remote

b) not being there physically

c) a figure of ridicule, yet also a figure to be feared

d) unable to readily display soft emotions such as sadness

This terminology "father hunger" implies a deficiency of loving associated with the powerful male symbol, at ease with women and himself. Prior to the Industrial Revolution Robert Bly makes the point boys worked with their fathers, and followed more often than not in the tradition of a family occupation., and that this was disrupted with industrialisation. Seyla Benhabib interprets the trend of sons not following the occupations of their fathers, as society moving from a moral perspective to what she terms the good life. In other words and simply put, it is the greatest good for society to allow people to follow their abilities and talents than the moral position of following in the fathers footsteps. Bly also ascribes part of the current difficulties of the father son relationship and the present predicament of men to this loss of bonding.

It is my contention that it is not only this lack of male interaction, that cause boys to grow up with a psychological and emotional imbalance than may lead to a greater incidence of suicide, but the fact that boys are not encouraged to embrace the feminine side of themselves. Unfortunately gender studies have been perceived as a feminist run issue, however it is my contention that it is imperative for men to understand gender issues because these relate to their health and well being. It is imperative for men to see that they are trapped in a gender role for which there may not be historical legitimacy.

The Twisted King

The Twisted King is a familiar figure in history, and we mostly hear about the excesses of these men like Stalin and Hitler, but little is taught or understood about the truly positive men in our history. Boys need to hear the stories of the positive men, such as Ghandi : a man who embodied the female as well as the male principle.

Bly makes the point that men need to find this balance through trial, errors and most importantly tasks, set by older wiser men. A task I liken to a sacred ritual or Zen koan that by the contemplation of or doing reveals the answer to an issue or problem. Much like the story of Iron John which, tells of the transition from boyhood to manhood. If the situation of the story was told directly, it would lose its allegorical effect. If it was merely read, rather than acted out, it would lose its transformative effect.

This transition and story telling can not be carried out by women for men. I do not know the reason for this, except that it seems to be one of these immutable natural laws: the indigenous peoples of the world almost without exception have transition rituals for young men initiated by older men.

It is increasingly recognised by women that in order for a teenager to grow he must leave the company of his mother: " Sorry guys, but the key really is under the mother's pillow". The implication is that he must first steal the key: a noted NZ feminist made a similar point recently. Bly refers to this as leaving the mother for the protection and encouragement of older men, other wise the boy will always be looking for a mother in his relationships with the opposite sex.

The thought that men could give advice to young women about menstrual matters and women's business is anathema to most people. But why is there not general recognition of the need for the equivalent of this same practice to be extended to young men by older men? Perhaps men need to organise it!

A group of men, with some funding from the Ulverstone based men’s health action group decided to take responsibility to organise a camp incorporating these lessons for late 1997 summer at Quamby Bluff in Tasmania. Twelve men attended including four sons. The program centred around: a difficult walk up to the Bluff, the scene of a white massacre of Aborigines last century; reading the Iron John story with myself as actor/ dramatist; holding workshops on the resulting impact of each of the sections of the story: some of the men shouted and screamed for the first time; group exercises based on co-counselling about what they hoped to achieve from the weekend, aims and objectives, and what they got from the walk up the mountain; the men and boys were encouraged to talk about their fathers, grand fathers, uncles, stepfathers; each person provided an entertainment item and helped prepare food; encounter type clearing sessions; an initiation celebration for a teenage boy .

A follow up interview was sent to each of the fathers/ participants. There was a 80% response rate for the eight men (excluding their sons) who attended the work shop and all said they had at some stage contemplated suicide: one seriously, and for one it was an ongoing issue.Most had heard about it from word of mouth, and most felt better able to communicate with their sons after, though some still felt the communication had to be initiated by them. Some comments ranged from "ecstatic" to "no perceptible change" to their particular circumstances. All wanted the workshop to continue on an annual basis, and would come back and encourage others to attend.

Most had told of their difficulties with their fathers, and of being aware of this factor in their emotional make up, as an issue for them. Some men clearly had difficulty with the process, as they were not used to such strong expressions of emotion, (crying, laughing, anger, joy) ; and in the safe environment of the group they felt able to participate in these emotions.

There is a case for men acting on and helping men with emotional problems, despite the common perception that men were afraid to open up to other men, due to a "disconnection to their actual feeling state"

The facilitator must first address male pride and male fears, and not be threatened by the open display of such emotions: a male who himself has completed the transition to malehood, where it is recognised that the expression of soft emotions is indeed appropriate and manly, which is the essential point in dealing with young men and suicide idealisation.

Ironically men and women by working together as our distant ancestors did, can promote the strengths of each other. Part of the ritual involving boys passage to manhood involves the women reluctantly letting their sons go, and welcoming them back as men.

This article is based on a research paper submitted for the 1997 summer school at the Launceston campus of the University of Tasmania School of Education. Full copies may be obtained from the writer}.

Michael Kidd is a kiwi and has been a tutor at the University of Western Sydney Hawkesbury, Richmond 2753; lawyer, and has completed a PhD on Aboriginal land rights in the New Millennium.

Dr Michael Kidd, Barrister
P O Box 21 985, Henderson, Auckland, NZ

mob: 025 467985

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