men, masculinities and gender politics

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County Men Laud Stoicism and Suicide

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Alston M (2010). Rural male suicide in Australia. Social science & medicine (1982) PMID: 20541304

Men’s stoicism, commitment to self-reliance when it comes to managing problems, and belief that help-seeking is a sign of weakness were recently cited by Mensline Australia as reasons that men are reluctant to seek help when they need it. It has also been suggested that appreciating the role of hegemonic masculinity in the form of the ‘hypermasculine swagger of rural masculinity’ is a prerequisite for improving the health of rural Australian men’ (Saunders & Peerson, 2009).

At the end of 2009, I gave a presentation at the University of New England, Armidale, on men and their emotional behaviours, in which I referred to the above quote. Armidale, like many rural, regional, and remote towns in Australia, is beset with problems that stem from geographical, social, and cultural isolation. Most significantly, men are real men out there: strong, silent, and tough, in fact, tough as nails, as the old saying goes. The trouble is that many of those men are suffering intensely, internally, privately, a living hell in which suicide can become the only viable escape.

Whenever suicide prevention gets a mention here in Australia, it is usually tied to either young people or rural men. Few of us live in the bush but we idealise it and romanticise its people like some sort of John Steinbeck novel filtered through Lewis Carroll’s pen. Indeed, as Margaret Alston aptly describes it in this short but sweeping article, we laud the stoicism that comes in the ‘face of [their] adversity’ (2010, n.pag). Rural men can survive drought, storm, bushfire, and flood. In a genuine sense, we rely on the strength of their reality as much as their myth to drive us all through tough times.

Alston is of the view ‘that the way rural masculinities are constructed in Australia restricts men’s ability to ask for help’ (2010). Moreover, men in rural settings know to buckle up when under pressure rather than face the shame of being outed as a loser, someone less than manly (2010). I can, to a degree, see what she is getting at but would argue that similar forces apply to men in the city who, despite claims to the contrary, are equally prone to jumping off the twig as their rural counterparts (2010). Hegemonic masculinity, after all, compels universal ascription to its perverse ideals.

Like Moller-Leimkuhler (2003), amongst others, Alston (2010) posits that male suicide is linked to men, in this case rural men, losing certainty over their person and place. It is to imagine that long ago if not far away, men knew who they were and what they were doing and so blowing their brains out was a much less chosen option. However, Alston (2010) willingly concedes that what is wrong with rural men is largely a product of lifelong exposure to masculine ideals, a phenomenon that has remained relatively fixed over generations.

I absolutely agree with Alston’s (2010) conclusion that critically analysing and deconstructing those masculine ideals that keep rural men strong, silent and tough, is a pre-requisite for preventing suicide amongst this distinct cohort. There is also a pressing need for a massive paradigm shift, to use that horrible cliché, in service culture, such that health and community service workers in rural settings neither intentionally nor ignorantly shut the door on men in trouble. We must never forget that service utilisation or the lack thereof by men is a relational dynamic.

‘Missing’ from Alston’s (2010) article but something that I never stop rambling on about, of course, is that punishing boys into men with masculine ideals that delimit emotional expressivity and help-seeking behaviours from the year dot, causes attachment trauma that effectively sets many rural men up for an early grave…

Drinking too much

Driving too fast

Topping themselves…

Reprinted with permission from Strong Silent Types - Stuff About Men.