The mental health crisis behind the death toll

A reduction of violence against women and children may start with a stronger focus on men’s mental health

In April this year, as the country was starting to witness a sharp rise in the murders of women at the hands of men as compared to previous years, Chief Justice of the Family Court Will Alstergrenis hosted the National Family Violence Symposium in Melbourne. 

Family violence, he said, “is not a women’s issue. It’s an all of society issue. It’s a men’s issue.”

Well, it’s International Men’s Health Week, which presents a timely opportunity to have the very important conversation around the intersection between men’s mental health and men’s violence in Australia.

Forty-three women have already been killed due to violence in Australia in 2024, putting us on track to surpass the devastating total of 61 lives lost in 2023. Data from the Australian Institute of Criminology shows that in the 2022-23 financial year, almost half the women murdered were killed by a current or former intimate partner – and all those partners were men. The rate of intimate partner homicide against women increased by 28% compared to the previous year, and is likely to increase again this year.

Children, of course, are also victims of men’s violence. Several young children have been murdered by men in 2024. 

But men are predominantly the victims and perpetrators of violence. In 2023, 69 per cent of homicide victims were men, with 87 per cent of perpetrators also being men. The epidemic of men’s violence plagues us all.

While the majority of men do not engage in this violence, a majority of men struggle with mental health. The 2024 men’s mental health report found that 51 per cent of men admitted suffering from symptoms of poor mental health, with one in three experiencing suicidal thoughts. Despite the commonality of experiences of many men, a third found it difficult to talk to someone about their mental health, with many citing not wanting to burden others (50 per cent), embarrassment (46 per cent) and stigma (40 per cent) as key barriers. This highlights the immense pressure men face to appear “strong” and not show vulnerability. But vulnerability is strength.

Yesterday, in collaboration with consent education campaign Teach Us Consent, I released a video about The Man Box 2024 study, which demonstrates a clear link between endorsement of rigid masculine traits and increased risk of violence. Men who most strongly endorsed “Man Box” rules, which promote toughness and dominance, were more likely to perpetrate harassment, bullying, and intimate partner violence compared to those who least endorsed them.

When men feel trapped by narrow definitions of masculinity are unable to express their emotions in a healthy way, aggression can become a destructive coping mechanism. This toxic combination of poor mental health and harmful gender roles fuels the epidemics of men’s suicide and men’s violence against women, children, gender diverse people and most predominantly, other men. By creating space for men to express their emotions, seek help, and lead healthier, more fulfilling lives, we are directly working towards a society with less violence and higher wellbeing.

Unfortunately our mental health systems are woefully underfunded and while some additional funding in the 2024-25 budget is welcome, Mental Health Australia states it is not adequate to meet the growing demand and state of our mental health crisis. An older Productivity Commision report into the economic impact of mental ill-health and suicide found it costs between $43 billion and $70 billion annually through lower productivity and absenteeism, but found that by investing $4.2 billion in services it could deliver $18 billion in benefits back to the economy. While we shouldn’t reduce ourselves to mere hamsters on the wheel of the Australian economy, the economic argument for fully funding our mental health services is clear, you don’t have to have a bleeding heart to agree.

Bettering men’s mental health outcomes will prevent violence and help the economy but for that to happen, we need a profound cultural shift that allows men to surface from suffocating gender norms. Programs promoting empathy, respect, consent, and emotional intelligence are vital, as are accessible mental health services tailored for men. But real change requires all of us to challenge the limits of gender as a way of defining ourselves. We should focus on being good people and give each other the tools and space to do that, we’ll all be better for it.

Jack Toohey is a writer and filmmaker.

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