Content note: This post deals with themes of depression and suicide, and may be triggering for some readers.
Mid-afternoon last Tuesday and three women on the Gold Coast took their own lives.
Heather Cummins’ husband had gone out to pick up groceries. He returned home to a luxury apartment on Ephriam Island on the city’s broadwater and discovered his wife, her sister Wynette and their mother Margaret, had died by suicide while he was gone.
“He wasn’t surprised that it has happened,” a police officer, referring to the husband, told media at the scene.
Later, we learned the three women – aged 72, 53 and 54 – had been planning their deaths for months.
They had signed up to Exit International, an organisation that promises to “inform and support” members on their “end-of-life decision making”. The website talks about euthanasia, the ‘right’ to choose, and visitors to the website can purchase the Peaceful Pill Handbook for $80.
We can never know why Heather, Wynette and Margaret took their own lives but we do know middle-aged women in Australia face unique challenges.
They are the ‘invisible’ women in our world. Those who are left behind and overlooked until a three-person suicide pact makes us sit up and wonder why. Middle-aged women are the most likely of all age groups to be admitted to hospital for a depressive order, a 2013 literature review found.
The complexities of reporting on suicide. Post continues below.
Coupled with this is the way women over 60 are more likely to attempt and complete suicide compared to younger women. And suicide is 6.6 times higher among older women who have been in prior contact with mental health services than any other group in the general population.
What is happening to these women?
Are there social issues driving middle-aged and elderly Australian women closer to such an extreme, desperate act?
Certainly there are.
There are health problems, grief, loneliness, alcoholism and carer stress, which have all been shown to contribute to suicide in older ages.
“Declining health including chronic pain, in combination with social isolation, lack of social support, and evolving depression and hopelessness” are frequently involved, Psychiatrist at the University of New South Wales Brian Draper told Monash University.
Loneliness is a particularly potent ingredient and it’s creeping into the lives of middle-aged Australian women.
Maybe friendships have slipped away because of time lost at work or while raising a family. Maybe children have moved out of home and are living separate lives. Perhaps marriages have broken down – between 1990 and 2011 the rate of divorce after 20 years of marriage in Australia doubled.
A 2015 study in the UK found one in seven of people aged between 45 and 54 reported feelings of isolation. This was the highest rate of any other age group. Loneliness has also been linked with suicidal thoughts and can increase the risk of death by 26 per cent.
Then, there is the way women (because it usually is women) automatically and without-a-choice adopt the role of 'carer' for an ageing or disabled loved-one and are left with no guidance and often little support.
In the UK, these carers are three-times more likely to die by suicide than the general population. It isn't a stretch to think the same numbers might apply in Australia.
Finally, there is poverty.
Australian women their 50s are the fastest growing group experiencing homelessness in Australia.
The trend has been described as a "tsunami" and charities have reported a 44 per cent increase in the number of older women seeking homelessness services in the past five years. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, nearly 10,000 older women sought support for homelessness in the past financial year.
Last year, an analysis of Australian Tax Office data, conducted by Industry Super Australia, showed 40 per cent of all retired single women live below the poverty line.
Read that again: 40 per cent of all retired single women live below the poverty line.
Older women in Australia are being left behind. They are invisible at the same time as they are facing a stark contrast between the lives they expected to be living and the reality they are living. They are lonely, struggling with health, and moving through a darkness that no one is seeing or trying to understand.
These women are facing unique challenges. And, surely, there should be options, support and alternatives that are far brighter than such a tragic and irreversible way out.
If you or anyone you know is suffering from mental health issues or is contemplating suicide please call Lifeline on 131114. If you are in immediate danger please call 000.