Happy Men’s Mental Health Week, discarded Dads

My early years as a counselor taught me the ‘how does that make you feel’ style of therapy I’d learnt at grad school generally didn’t work so well engaging men. Guys aren’t simply ‘hairy women’ and if life-bettering change is the goal of counselling, men require a different, more male-friendly approach.

Encouraging the average bloke to open up, reflect on his problems and consider tweaking his counterproductive behaviors is a skill set that’s taken more than a decade of trial and error to refine. Having also presented hundreds of men’s personal development workshops, I’ve gained first-hand insight into how modern blokes are traveling as a group. Not tip top.

Beyond Blue reports one in eight Australian men will suffer depression and one in five will experience anxiety at some stage of their lives. Meaning men in our families and communities are struggling right now, often in silence, and don’t know where to turn for support that both respects male sensibilities and doesn’t consider masculinity ‘toxic’.

Consider the Family Court tragedy of parental alienation, where in Australia 26 per cent of children of separated parents see one parent, usually dad, less than once per year. Nearly 70 per cent of the time the female partner initiates the divorce, usually after a period of contemplation, leaving most of these fathers blindsided and reeling for months after. For some, the worst is yet to come.

Mothers intent on alienating can resort to weaponizing false accusations (domestic violence, child abuse, sexual assault) by filing strategic restraining orders that legally cut off dad from his kids. These allegations act like a proverbial shotgun blast to an innocent father’s reputation and give rogue mums free rein to permanently poison paternal bonds.

In her article The Importance of Fathers, Ditta M. Oliker Ph.D. concludes from decades of family studies that children with involved and caring fathers fare better across the board. Its common sense that kids suffer developmentally without consistent quality time spent with their dads.

Academic researcher Edward Kruk Ph.D. in his article Parental Alienation as Child Abuse and Family Violence explains “custody and legal possession of a child are fertile ground for abusive parents to act at will against the target parent, and witnessing such acts… by children constitute a serious form of emotional child abuse”.

It’s estimated up to half of the male suicide rate in Australia is due to mental health deterioration resulting from family separation and parental alienation. That equates to 21 dead dads per week. It’s a national crisis the ABC still won’t publicize, while the Australian Government continues to spend millions of taxpayer dollars rolling out their seasonal ‘men suck’ campaigns.

Men and boys are not toxic. Men’s mental health is essential to the well-being of the community, and society continually telling blokes they’re the “bad ones” does real psychological damage. It’s also inaccurate.

According to clinical psychologist Bettina Arndt’s widely researched article Always Beating Up on Men, international statistics suggest both sexes share near equal responsibility for behaving destructively during relationship conflict. Any couples counselor worth their salt would agree it typically takes two to trash a relationship.

Even when a couple manages to separate semi-amicably, it can still take dad years to recover from the loss of his family unit. Transitioning into co-parenthood, while grieving, requires both parties to vigilantly bite their tongues (personal digs, snide remarks, fishing for details about the other parent’s new life) and maintain a mutual focus on the best interests of their kids. Easier said than done.

Putting old scores and fresh grievances aside is essential to the long-term emotional health of both children and co-parents alike. That’s where a male-friendly counselor can help. Most men respond well to skills-based, solution-focused counselling where they feel empowered by proven tools to navigate their trying circumstances. It’s a collaborative conversation.

Fathers recovering from separation or experiencing parental alienation can also access a handful of quality Australian organisations offering male-friendly support. Dads in Distress (parentsbeyondbreakup.com) is a national suicide prevention charity focusing on separating families. Operating a network of no cost, local peer support groups in many communities across Australia, Dads in Distress is a literal lifesaver for blokes feeling at the end of their rope.

Rob Tiller (robtiller.com.au) is a counselor specializing in supporting men and couples from his Perth office (or online for out-of-area clients). He’s also available to present a range of personal and professional development workshops around Australia.

This article first appeared in The Spectator Australia and is reposted here with the author’s permission.

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