12 Jan 2022

Associative vs Causative – My two cents worth

I feel the need to comment on an article that was published by ABC in December about a study into farmer suicide. To say this article ‘got my Irish up’ is an understatement.

You can read the ABC article here

View Article

Firstly, let me clarify the following points:

  1. I fully support more research into rural suicide; be it farmers or all rural people. I especially support research into rural male suicide as males are significantly over-represented.
  2. I do not disagree with all the findings of the research. In fact, I agree with most of it. The numbers are not good, and we need to have more targeted services that work for rural people. I also acknowledge that there is more to this study than what is discussed in this one ABC article.
  3. My objection is specifically related to drawing conclusions based on firearms simply by association rather than causation.
  4. While I mainly refer to ‘men’ in my comments below, I strongly acknowledge that women were part of this study and that female farmers also die by suicide. I refer to ‘men’ simply because they account for the overwhelming majority of suicides in Australia and in this study.
  5. I will openly discuss suicide and methods of suicide but in no way am I trivialising the tragedy of every life lost. Every single person is precious and my heart breaks for every family and community impacted by suicide.
  6. I deeply acknowledge the tragedy of Port Arthur and the 35 people who lost their lives that day as well as those that were injured. In no way am I trivialising the seriousness of that event. I firmly believe that event is a serious issue on its own and is not related to rural or farmer suicide.
  7. I have endeavoured to get more detailed information from the researcher about this study. At the time of writing, limited information has been supplied to me.
  8. I also acknowledge the ability and the necessity of media to ‘cherry pick’ the information they wish to highlight as they may not always have the space to provide a comprehensive report covering all the details of a story.

For simplicity, I will individually address the parts of the article which I have an issue with.

 

Issue 1

Quote from article

But one issue that stuck out in the research was the easy access to firearms.
"We know guns are a part of everyday life on a farm," he said.
"But easy access to such a quick and lethal method probably accounts for the high rates of suicide in the bush to some degree.

What utter bullshit! Suggesting that just having access to a firearm is the reason for higher suicide rates in the bush, is not only ridiculous but simply untrue. We need to look at the causes and drivers of stress and poor mental health for farmers, not the fact they have access to a particular means.

Let’s be very clear, farmers have access to a lot of means, not just firearms. Since detailed data on rural suicide is not widely available to the public (if any good data even exists), I am not sure what the rate of farmer suicide deaths by firearm are compared to other methods and compared to other demographics. I did contact the researchers of this study and asked this question, but they did not provide that specific information to me. I assume they must have this data.

What I do know is that in the latest suicide data released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in September 2021, firearms as a means, accounted for 6.6% of male suicide deaths (that is all Australian males, not just farmers). Another method of suicide accounted for a staggeringly high 60.6% of male suicides. Yet the focus is still on firearms.

Maybe it is worth considering the words quoted in the article…. “such a quick and lethal method”. If they coupled that with an understanding of how these men operate and the work that they do, then you may get a bit more insight into why farmers may choose firearms over other methods that are readily available to them. The researchers may have been closer to an answer than they realised.

I think it is more useful to investigate what factors caused these people to consider taking their own life and what can be done to prevent them reaching this stage. Simply saying they take their own life because they have access to a firearm is dangerously inaccurate and reeks of an agenda. They have access to many means but there is no mention of removing other methods used for suicide.

 

Issue 2

Quote from article

In fact, after the crackdown on automatic weapons following the Port Arthur mass shootings, we saw farmer suicide rates fall quite significantly. So access to firearms is an important factor.

This is where my mind exploded! This statement makes me so angry. It is nothing more than drawing a conclusion based on association rather than cause. How can anyone even put Port Arthur and farmer suicide into the same sentence? I’m not sure where or how they dragged this conclusion out of the murkiness but to me, it sounds like someone trying to add weight to the anti-gun debate. I think this is a low blow and I am appalled at using the deep sadness of farmer suicide to do that.

Let me give you an example of how ludicrous conclusions based on association rather than causation can be. The graph below with the title ‘Link between Autism and Organic Food’ has done the rounds on social media over the years. It is completely ‘tongue in cheek’ and a deliberate attempt to show how people can draw conclusions based on nothing more than association.

Please don’t email me to tell me this graph is bullshit, I know it is. It is purely an example of an absurd associative conclusion.

The direct reference to automatic weapons is another point that I take issue with. I fail to see how the firing action of the weapon has any impact on the likelihood of someone taking their own life. Having grown up around guns, I know that it only takes one shot to kill. Someone must have data on the different types of firearms used for suicide. The bit of research I have done shows that firearms as a method of suicide in Australia had been declining for approximately 16 years prior Port Arthur in 1996. The gun laws did not have a significant impact on the pre-existing downward trend in the overall number of firearm suicides. Note this reduction was for all Australian suicides, not specifically farmers. Given that firearm suicides were already declining well before Port Arthur, were automatic weapons a major means prior and they just suddenly changed to other means after? Farmers still had access to single shot and some semi-automatic firearms after the introduction of gun laws. This begs the question, why single out a type of firearm based on firing action? The only apparent reason would be an agenda based on firearms as opposed to suicide, or a complete lack of understanding of the causes of suicide. Neither position is acceptable.

Australian Bureau of Statistics data for suicide death rates (per 100,000 of population) from 1907 to 2020 (see graph below), shows that in the first half of the century, suicide rates steadily increased. From the 1950s, the rate of suicides began to increase more rapidly. Over the last century, we have seen a general to rapid increase in the rate of suicides. In 1997 and 1998 (after Port Arthur & gun laws), there was a spike in suicides and according to ABS data, there was an almost 14% reduction in suicides due to ‘firearms and explosives’, yet suicide due to ‘hanging, strangulation and suffocation’ rose by almost 25%. Keep in mind that statistical analysis and applying percentages to small sample numbers can give an inaccurate view. For example, 14% of 200 is very different to 14% of 10. Obviously removing one method did nothing to curb the total suicide rates. Given the number of accessible firearms has reduced due to gun laws but the rate of suicides has increased, I fail to see how the number of guns is directly related to the rate of suicides.

It is also interesting to note that after the introduction of the gun laws, the incidence of ‘unintentional deaths by firearm’ (accidents) increased. Locking up the guns did not reduce gun accidents. Maybe with the guns locked away, people never developed common sense and respect for firearms? As a child, I grew up with the 410 leaning against the door frame of the back door and the shot gun standing in the corner behind the chair on the verandah. Every vehicle had a gun rack and that is where the guns sat in plain view and yet we had a very healthy respect for firearms and their safe use. Since 2007, the number of registered firearms in Australia has been increasing yet the percentage of suicide by firearm has continued to decrease. In the period from 2000 to 2008 (after Port Arthur & gun laws), 91% of the firearms used to commit homicide were unregistered, and 88% of offenders were unlicensed. What a surprise that criminals don’t abide by gun laws.

When it comes to farmer suicide, it would be more valuable to investigate correlations with the seasons and other factors rather than mass homicide and the accessibility of certain means. If there was a drastic decline in farmer suicide by firearm following Port Arthur (April 1996), what other potential causes were at play? When we look at the graph below from the ABS, we can see some obvious fluctuations in suicide numbers that coincide with major social and economic impacts such as world wars and the Great Depression.

I have added some labels to the above graph to show a couple of specific years around Port Arthur. There was a spike in suicides in 1987 which was the big stock market crash, and this was followed by skyrocketing interest rates and according to Paul Keating, “the recession we had to have”. The early 1990s saw Australia in the grip of a recession and rising unemployment. In 1990/91 the Australian Wool industry collapsed and overnight, sheep and wool became worthless. Farmers were encouraged to shoot their sheep to solve the problem of oversupply. I was working in the wool industry at that time, and I remember it like it was yesterday. It was a time of extreme tragedy. Millions of sheep were shot and buried or burnt right across Australia. Land prices dropped, jackeroos were laid off, banks foreclosed on properties and the heart broken men who spent days and weeks shooting their sheep then turned the gun on themselves. That is just one rural industry. What about the grain prices, the cattle market, drought and all the other sectors that make up our rich and diverse Australian agriculture? If farmer suicide by firearm was high in the 10 years prior to Port Arthur and then suddenly dropped off, I’m very confident there were other reasons for it and not the introduction of gun laws.

Australia was one of the first countries in the world to develop a National Suicide Prevention Strategy. The initial plan focused on youth and was implemented in 1995-1996. From 1995 to 1999, a total of $31 million dollars was allocated to expanding the strategy and it has only grown since then.

I can’t recall any major events like stock market crashes that may explain the increased rate of suicide in 1997-1998 but I know it was dry, so I investigated rainfall at that time. Obviously, the seasons play a critical role in agriculture so they must be considered when looking at farmer stress levels. In 1989, 1990 and 1991, Australia had average rainfall even though in 1990, a large part of non-cropping areas of Queensland experienced huge floods. By 1994-1995, many parts of Australia were in drought and by 1997, Australia was in the grip of a strong El Niño. In September 1997, the Federal Government announced rescue packages for farmers. In the decade from 1989 to 1999, there were only two years that were above average rainfall but if you look at the below rainfall maps, you will see that large parts of the major cropping regions of Australia were extremely dry from 1995 to 1998. Even with the above average rainfall in 1998-1999, some of the cropping regions in Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia only saw average rainfall. Just considering rainfall alone, I am not surprised that farmers might have been stressed at that time which may have led to poor mental health. Goodness knows what else was going on with the grain prices, availability of stockfeed, cattle prices, and water for irrigation, stock, and homes, just to mention a couple of the many issues faced by rural people in dry times. 

When making assumptions about farmer suicide, we should be considering rainfall, commodity prices (grain/cattle/wool/fruit/dairy etc), input costs, red and green tape from governments, the financial position of the business, and even divorce/separation rates amongst farmers. If you really want to base conclusions on association, then find something that is in fact associated.

 

Issue 3

Quote from article

He said part of the problem was the culture around reaching out for help from medical professionals.

The study points out that farmers have strong suicide literacy and awareness, yet they still have one of the highest suicide rates of any profession. I travel all over rural Australia and I speak face to face with a lot of rural men so let me tell you the most common thing that men in distress (men who really want/need to see a professional) say to me…. “I really want to get help but if I do, they will take my guns off me so I’m not going to the doctor.” The fear of losing their guns is enough to prevent these men from seeking the help they need. So, the more you bang on about gun ownership and suicide, the less likely these men are to reach out. There are many other reasons why rural men don’t reach out, but this is a major one for owners of firearms. Taking away their guns is an insult to their intelligence. If they really want to check out, they will find another method.

I recently had a male farmer in his 70s approach me after I spoke at an event. He stood in front of me in a crowded room and cried openly. Not because he wanted to kill himself but because he went to the doctor and got a mental health plan. He had no suicidal thoughts at all, he just wanted to talk to a counsellor. The next day the police arrived and took all his guns simply because he had a mental health plan. These were no ordinary guns; these were his father’s and grandfather’s guns dating back to the Boer war. These were not just tools he used on the farm, they were part of his family history and part of his identity. They took far more than just guns from him. He sobbed as he told me he has no way to ever get those precious firearms back. He said, “My physical health is not good and it is likely I could die and the cops will still have dad and grandad’s guns”. I implore you to look at the actual causes of poor mental health rather than what method is used. Taking guns off farmers because it is a means to suicide is what I think the ‘woke’ would call ‘victim blaming’. It is the like saying a female rape victim asked for it because of what they wore, an utterly unacceptable association. 

During my research prior to writing this article, I found plenty of information linking gun ownership to suicide. I think most of it can be summed up by this statement which was in the introduction to one study I looked at. It sounds very agenda driven to me.

“Understanding the methods used for suicide can play an important role in suicide prevention. These data are provided to inform discussion around restriction of access to means as a policy intervention for the prevention of suicide.”

I think it is more useful focus on the causes/drivers of poor mental health and find ways to reduce/manage those rather concentrating on the method used for suicide. Does understanding the method really play a vital role in prevention? To me that seems a bit like shutting the gate after the horse has bolted. But then I’m no mental health expert.

The second sentence clearly shows there is an agenda wanting to blame firearm ownership for suicide rates. Where is all the research into ownership of other means and the link to likelihood of suicide, and the discussion about restricting access to those things? I hear crickets. And that is because most other means are far more accessible than firearms. Guns are much more emotive and it’s easier to rally a lynch mob to fight for further firearms restrictions. Guns are an easy scapegoat.

I want to end with some positives from the article.

Quote from article

"I think this research is showing that local community-based services are more likely to be successful – locals helping locals – at sporting clubs, pubs, community events, local schools.
Mr Sartor said it is also likely that a number of fatal car crashes in the bush involving only one vehicle were actually farmer suicides that never made it into the statistics.

Well said! I fully support these statements in the article. Grassroots, community-based stuff is helping rural people and we need more of it. Research continues to show this yet the large organisations with insane amounts of money in the bank are still getting the lion’s share of funding and yet do very little to support rural people. It seems the old adage, ‘money attracts money’ is true. It is also good to see an acknowledgement of single vehicle accidents and the issue of under-reporting in the statistics.

The annual cost to Australia of maintaining nationwide gun registries and enforcing gun regulation, on the mostly law-abiding citizens who bother to register their firearms, is estimated to be up to or possibly more than $100 million dollars. We don’t know the exact cost because it is not published and apparently, they refuse to do so. Imagine how many more police officers we could have on our streets catching real criminals such as perpetrators of firearm related crimes. Instead, it is spent on the licensing of firearms owners, administration of the gun registry (which is has errors) and sometimes even the harassment of low-risk legal gun owners. We could even allocate some of that money to more research into rural suicide and there may be a bit of spare change that could be given to grassroots community-based suicide prevention.

Regardless of the method of suicide, we need to focus on the causes, so we are better informed and better equipped for prevention and intervention. Owning a gun does not mean you will have poor mental health or have suicidal thoughts. Let’s continue to do everything we can to stop another family and another community grieving the loss of a loved one. If we are serious about preventing rural suicide, then we need to do better than associative assumptions. Let’s keep the discussion about suicide and not make it about gun regulation. If you want to have a gun debate and discuss mass shootings, then go right ahead but leave rural suicide out of it. The people in the bush, my people, have suffered enough.

 

Mary O’Brien

12 January 2022