Monday, May 15, 2006

Teenage suicide: a bullshit, non-epidemic

My being an Xer Intergenerational Rip-off theory (and practice) partisan sometimes means having to fight the fire on two fronts: younger and older. For the most part, I prefer to leave the younger* generation well out of my rants.

But when valid statistics, which longitudinally compare Xers and Yers, do exist and such stats are wilfully ignored so as to advance a special pleading case for Gen Y, so shunting-aside *my* generation in the process, I won’t hold back.

Such is the case with current concerns about teenage suicide. Simply put, there is not now, and has not been for more than a decade, a teenage suicide epidemic. There is (and has been since the early 1980s), however, a definite suicide epidemic in Australia: among boys, then men, born between the mid-60s and early 70s.

Simon Castles writes of the Xer “suicide generation” here, while a more impersonal, stat-based reference is: Jeni Harvie "Suicide prevention needs direction" Australian 3 December 2005 (no URL).

Here’s the table, in text form, from that article (which cites the ABS as its source):

The four columns are: age bands, 1992 rates, 2002 rates, and % change (i.e. over that decade)

15-24 years 16.4 11.8 -28.0

25-34 years 18.8 19.0 1.1

35-44 years 16.1 18.5 13.0

45-54 years 16.3 14.8 -9.2

55-64 years 15.2 11.1 -27.0

65-74 years 16.6 10.9 -34.3

75+ years 16.5 12.2 -26.1

All ages 13.2 11.8 -10.6

Extrapolating from these stats:

Teenage (as well as, FWIW, 55+) suicide rates took a dramatic fall in the mid-late 90s; i.e. as GenY started to hit puberty en masse, and uber-Xer Kurt Cobain, ahem, politely excused himself from the emerging circus).

Meanwhile, albeit not as dramatically (unless one factors-in that every other age range’s rates fell), the suicide rates for Xers *rose*, particularly so for older Xers, aged in their mid-late 30s in 2002. The given figure (35-44 years old in 2002) admittedly also includes boomers born as early as 1958, but as I’ve argued elsewhere, such “Wallace Line”-overlapping stats need unpicking. In particular, since there doesn’t appear to be any good reason why younger boomers (born 1958-1961) would have topped themselves in 2002 at a greater rate than older boomers (born 1948-1957, whose 2002 rate was 14.8), it is very likely that the actual Xer rate within the 35-44 years-old-in-2002 cohort was significantly higher than the cross-generational average rate given, of 18.5. (If the boomer rate within this cohort is assumed to be 14.8 (also), then the unpicked, pure-Xer rate would be 22 or so). (A similar statistical unpicking can be performed with the 25-34 years-old-in-1992 rate of 18.8; by imputing the older-boomers rate (of 16.1) to younger boomers, the pure-Xer rate (covering Xers born to 1967) would be also be 22 or so.)


I was prompted finally to write this post – which has long stewed dormantly in my mind – by this SMH article previewing tonight’s "Four Corners" (correction 17/5; original read “Australian Story”, an episode which promises to be a multi-hanky job for viewers, unless you’re an Xer man, in which case, I suggest it’s best avoided, less it prompt a brick-through-the TV-screen response, certainly if this sentiment is any guide:

These [teenage suicide] rates are down on the peak rates of the late '90s but that is no cause for complacency” (same URL).

Um, I think that just about every** single suicide is a tragedy – so what’s with the talk about “complacency”?

Something strange is going on here, and it’s made stranger by the cited “peak rate” time being decade-plus out of whack. As noted above, it’s my (Xer) generation who take the dubious honours here.

This “honours” point further, and this time exponentially, ups the strangeness ante. According to the acting principal of Riverview (an elite Catholic boys high-school) college, James Rodgers:

"It's a tragedy, it happens [i.e. when one of our students suicides], we are at one with people in their grief, but we can't send out the message to our students that the way to gain notoriety is to kill yourself." (same URL)

Um, if I was a teacher or administrator at Riverview, and I understood that gaining notoriety (or “fame”, to use a more neutral word) was a fairly major pre-occupation of many (all?) of my students, I wouldn’t be that keen on Rodgers’s harm-minimisation, or Safe Notoriety mindset.

Rather, I’d do one of the following:

(a) Kill myself. (Not for fame, mind, but because of suddenly discovering that I’d spent a large chunk of my life, in preparing to be a teacher, on a youthful generation for whom being taught anything at all is now revealed to be superfluous). Or

(b) Kill all the little fame-whores in my charge (Again, not for personal fame, but out of a genuine belief that I would be doing them a favour). Or

(c) Get Gretel Killeen on side (I’m pretty sure she was once a Catholic school-girl, which might count for something), with a view to arranging some kind of VIP-route into the “Big Brother” house/cast, just for Riverview students. If this cunning scheme did work, it should nicely quench my charge’s thirst for notoriety/fame. And do so in slightly less drastic way than (a) or (b). Or maybe not – but hey, that could just be my “complacency”, kicking in.

* “Younger” means born post-1978 or so; the Gen’s X/Y division is currently (and may always be) a “soft” border, in that it doesn’t feature the same dramatic, statistically-demonstrable “Wallace Line” that bifurcates around the 1962-born

** There’s a necessary exception here, I’d argue, for criminals who kill themselves to avoid justice.

Update 17 May 2006

More over at LP. To digest a comment I make there, I was electrified by one aspect of the show: a 16 y.o. gay kid’s coming-out epiphany at Homebake, going from a reserved nerd to crowd-surfing along to Grinspoon’s “More than you are”. So it was worth worth watching for that, at least. Otherwise, the "epidemic" bullshit did get a run, of course.

Also a curiosity from the program was the emotional frigidity of the dead kid's family. Reminds me very much of my own, and the fictional Fishers from “Six Feet Under".

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