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For European social theorists of the 19th century, suicide was a sign of urban pathology. It was equally true of 19th-century Melbourne that suicide rates were generally higher (although not dramatically so) than in rural Victoria. Between 1867 and 1902, suicide rates in the urbanised County of Bourke were 17.9 per 100 000 for males and 4.6 per 100 000 for females. Outside this county, suicide rates were 13.9 per 100 000 for males and 3.1 per 100 000 for females.

But in Australia, it was the bush rather than the city that was frightening and novel; so we find at least one suicidal death in 1851 attributed to insanity from having spent too long in the bush. Other cultural understandings of suicide were translated more easily into an Australian idiom. Just as the Thames and Waterloo Bridge ('the Bridge of Sighs' in Thomas Hood's poem) were the imaginative centres of suicide in British consciousness, the Yarra River was associated with suicide in the minds of Melburnians.

The medical profession became interested in suicide in the second half of the 20th century. Eric Cunningham Dax, chairman of the Mental Health Authority from 1952, began drawing attention to the problem of suicide, which claimed the same number of lives as did road accidents. Arguing that suicide was often associated with depression, Dax believed that better education of doctors, clergy and police would facilitate early medical intervention with potential suicide. In 1960 Dax established a personal emergency advice service, which answered letters and telephone calls from those suffering emotional disturbance.

An increase in rates of suicide among young people in the postwar period became a matter of social concern, resulting in the establishment of a task force in 1997 to consolidate knowledge and formulate pragmatic responses to the problem. The effectiveness of initiatives introduced in response to this inquiry has yet to be evaluated. Although suicide is now understood to be primarily a problem of youth, and rural youth in particular, statistics do not always support such generalisations. In 1986 the suicide rate for males in metropolitan Melbourne was 18.8 per 100 000, compared with 18.1 in the rest of the State. Female rates were 8.0 and 4.3 respectively. Perceptions of suicide, like the 19thcentury association of suicide with urban pathology, reflect changing views about social life and its dangers.

Simon Cooke