We have the ability to create contemporary rites of passage where teenage boys are challenged to think about what sort of men they are going to be and what childish behaviour they need to let go of, writes Arne Rubinstein.
By
Arne Rubinstein

26 Oct 2015 - 1:30 PM  UPDATED 28 Oct 2015 - 2:40 PM

According to Beyond Blue, 26.4 per cent of Australian males aged 16 to 24 have experienced a mental health disorder in the last 12 months. That means more than one quarter of the entire population of our young men, our sons, are struggling with either anxiety, depression or a series of other issues that severely impact on their lives.

Suicide is the biggest killer of young Australian men and accounts for more deaths than car accidents. Surely something is seriously wrong here.

And yet research collected by Deakin University shows that for males in Australia 11 and 12-years-old is when they are happiest. This is not completely surprising when you think about the lifestyle of a typical 11-year-old boy who goes to school, has little homework and few responsibilities, gets all his food provided, has computer games and mobile devices (most now have a smart phone), goes on play dates, gets tucked into bed at night and has a free 24/7 restaurant at home as well as a taxi service.

In my 15 years working as a general practitioner I was constantly amazed and in fact distressed at how these happy go lucky young boys could turn so rapidly into sullen, shut down, trouble seeking and openly angry teenagers.

In my 20 years working in emergency departments I have also seen way too many of the tragic results when young men self destructed with either drugs, alcohol, cars or violence.

I firmly believe that the issue is not in fact that our teenagers themselves have a problem, the issue is the environment they are living in simply doesn’t work for so many of them.

There is enormous pressure on our teenage boys to conform, to be a certain way and for so many to pretend to be something they are not. We still get fed the story that real men don't cry, drink lots of alcohol, have multiple beautiful girlfriends and love playing football.  I have spoken to hundreds of struggling teenagers who tell me they feel lost, unseen for who they are, like they are living behind a mask, and they feel hopeless about the future.

I sold my medical practice in 2000 to devote my time to research and developing programs to support our young men. The conclusion I came to was that they not only need to be seen and accepted for who they actually are, but they also need on a deeper level to transform from basic boy behaviour, which has them at the centre of the universe, taking no responsibility and looking for a mother, to healthy man behaviour where they realise they  are part of a community, their actions affect others, they have gifts to contribute to the community and to be able to form healthy and real relationships.

I have spoken to hundreds of struggling teenagers who tell me they feel lost ... like they are living behind a mask

In every indigenous community all around the world a boy would go through a coming of age rite of passage ceremony after he reaches puberty. They did this firstly to acknowledge and celebrate the transition from boy to young man and secondly to recognise and name the unique gifts and talents that are in each of the young men.

Despite living independently and with no contact with each other, all these communities did similar things. They used stories as a way of passing on wisdom and knowledge, they created appropriate physical challenges for their young men and they recognised each of them for their individual gifts and talents, their genius and spirit.

Our lack of formal rites of passage run by the elders of our communities has meant that generations of young men are learning how to be a man through the media and the internet (porn now being the standard form of sex education ), they are engaging in increasingly dangerous risk taking behaviours and they are feeling unseen and lost.

We have the ability to create contemporary rites of passage where teenage boys can hear the stories of older men, are challenged to think about what sort of men they are going to be and what childish behaviours they need to let go of, and are publically acknowledged for their individual gifts and talents.

Our lack of formal rites of passage run ... has meant that generations of young men are learning how to be a man through the media and the internet

Over 25,000 families have now been involved in some way with these programs in Australia and internationally. Independent research shows that these young men have better relationships with their fathers, more respect for women, a greater desire to continue on to tertiary education and are more likely to get involved in community work.

As a doctor I believe that properly facilitated rites of passage would be a highly effective form of preventative medicine that would significantly impact on levels of depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions in this country and they should become a normal part of our education system.

Readers seeking support and information can contact: Lifeline 13 11 14, Kids Helpline 1800 551 800 or the Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467

Dr Arne Rubinstein was a guest on Insight's Boys to Men episode, which asks whether boys need rituals to successfully transition into manhood.