Post-separation suicide risk

Suicide is a gendered issue: men are far more likely to complete suicide than are women, and post-separation times are very high risk for them, especially where children are involved. 

Why are Men more at Risk of Suicide after Separation?

Culturally, men are relatively unlikely to seek help when the black dog of depression comes nipping at their heels, and even when it is suggested by concerned friends and family, they can be hard to engage. There are estimates that 21 fathers in Australia alone commit suicide every week, and if we consider the forces at work in each of the (de-identified “composite”) stories below, the reasons might be a little clearer.

Isolation – Carl had little education, but worked very hard for a paltry wage. When his ex took their children to Melbourne from Queensland, he saved every penny to travel to see them in his very old car. However, the Child Support Agency estimated his income as much higher than it actually was, and seized his car, preventing him not only from working, but from seeing his children at all, because his ex would not bring them up to see him. He saw a psychologist only after he had unsuccessfully tried to hang himself.

Financial hardship – Fathers’ rights associations around the world are unified in their condemnation of the power of Child Support administrative bodies to make arbitrary decisions that have little or no basis in reality, and enforce them to the point beyond which payers can cope. The very real case of Warren Gilbert involved the ATO and the CSA together taking nearly 80% of his wages, leaving him with $150/week to live on. His body was later found in a car parked at the Namadgi National Park visitor’s centre.I have written six reports in the last 10 months for men who were psychologically unfit for work, but forced to pay up to $3000/month whilst on Newstart (Unemployment) benefit, but their GPs’ medical certificates were overruled by bureaucrats with no medical training at all.

Confusion – Mitchell’s ex lived a few minutes away by car. One night she stayed over at his new place, but slept in the next day, and demanded that he drive her back home, as she was still too drunk to drive. Unlicensed due to a medical condition (epilepsy), Mitch agreed to drive her back in her car. He dropped her off without getting out of the car, then drove straight home to store the car and protect her from herself, before walking to the bus shelter to get to the shops. He was arrested on the way.

She had been so upset at his not waking her up on time (being asleep himself), that she smashed a window after going in the house, and called the police, accusing him of domestic violence, apparently to avoid the landlord being able to blame her for the damage. He spent the weekend in the watch house and was denied his epilepsy medication. A seizure was misinterpreted by the night shift as aggression (he was in for DV, after all), and he was soundly beaten up. He attempted an overdose the first day out of jail when he was denied legal aid. He said he didn’t want to live in a world that made so little sense.

Shame – Gary, too, was accused of domestic violence. When his unmedicated bipolar partner flew into a rage because he did not hear her ask him to turn the TV down and went to smash a frying pan over his head, he grabbed her wrists and held her back. She called police to accuse him of violence, and police accepted the red marks on both of her wrists as proof, putting a DVO in place on her behalf. Being labelledby her to all their friends as a “wife-basher”, he was too ashamed to seek help until after his ex invited him back to see the kids, and started screaming at him, again over trivial matters. The neighbours called police about the shouting and he was arrested and charged with breaching the DVO.

Now banned from seeing his children at all, he does not talk to his family or friends because part of him feels that somehow it was his fault. Thoughts of ending it all got in the way of concentration at work, and he was sacked the day before an unsuccessful overdose brought him into therapy. He still feels guilt over domestic violence that he did not commit, but is coming to understand that it is the result of cultural myths that he used to accept, about domestic violence only being something that men do to women.

Anguish – Kevin sought help because he knew that he was at risk of serious depression, because 10 years before he had suffered it, and had made a “cry for help” attempt at suicide during marital difficulties. Anguish had preceded that attempt, and now that his ex had left he was experiencing it again. His ex had used the 10-year-old records of past depression to convince a credulous judge that he was “too depressed to be safe around his children.” The judge banned him from seeing the children until a psychologist certified him to be not depressed.

Fortunately for Kevin, taking time off work to volunteer at the kids’ school to read stories at story time did not technically breach the wording of the order, and he bounced back without falling back into the abyss.

Hurt – Brian’s ex suffered from Borderline Personality Disorder, and seemed to be of the view that if the children loved their father, they would love her less.  Brian understood that the more people the children loved, and who loved them, the more love there would be to go around, but to her, love was a zero-sum game.

However, as usually happens in the present system, she ended up with primary care of the children, and began alienating them straight away. She started telling them about how everything he told them was a lie. She would sit beside them on the phone, making sure the conversation was terminated before he could tell them he loved them. When she cut him off completely, she accused his friends of being paedophiles and him of carelessly exposing them to danger.

When he remarried, she falsely accused his new wife of abandoning the children at Big W, fortunately, in a place directly in view of security cameras. When his new daughter was about to be born (to the great excitement of the kids), she called in repeated and abusive police welfare checks in the middle of the night and first thing in the morning, nearly sending the new wife into a dangerous early labour, which resulted in the children going back to the mother until after the birth.

Once the baby was born, more baseless excuses were concocted to bar the children from seeing their little sister on her first day. The joy of his new child’s birth and the support of his wife helped hold Brian together – but remove the support, or have him arrested on false charges, or have Child Safety involved with the new child because of lies about the older ones, and you have a recipe for disaster.

Humiliation – Beyond simple hurt, there is humiliation. Terence was a great dad, raising two kids from infancy, putting in time changing nappies, midnight feeds – everything a dad could do. However, as with many men, upon separation, he became the devil incarnate, accused without basis or evidence of a multitude of sins to make him appear to be a threat to his children. A common tactic in post-separation litigation, such allegations resulted in a Terence being limited to an hour a week of “contact” with his children, under the watchful eye of a recently-graduated social worker many years his junior with no children of her own.

His previous confidence destroyed, his faith in his partner’s previous appearance of fairness and rationality gone, and the weight of the justice system pressing against him through its unqualified belief in his ex’s unproven allegations, he is at present receiving a limited supply of tranquilzing medications from his doctor, who is unwilling to supply enough at one time to enable him to overdose.

Depression, Despair and Anxiety – If we look at isolation, financial hardship, confusion, shame, anguish, hurt and humiliation, it would seem that any one of these would lead to depression, and any two to outright despair. But the examples above are sketches that do not give the complete picture.

Brian’s path started with confusion about his ex, and the shame not of having paedophiles as friends, but of having that story told around the neighbourhood, even though it was false, as a result of the presumption of guilt that is now in place around such allegations.  Kevin was not without a good deal of confusion about how a judge could use 10-year-old evidence of past successful treatment for depression to make him out to be some kind of threat to his kids, and was hurt that his ex-wife would stoop to such tactics. Gary’s anguish at losing his kids only amplifies his shame, and both financial hardship and anguish at losing touch with his kids were clearly large contributors for Carl.

The flow-on effects of a fragile emotional state create other repercussions that produce anxiety. Terence recently lost his job as an electrical linesman over anxiety about the Department of Child Safety becoming involved. There had been allegations that his daughter walked in on him during a bath and saw him naked that were investigated by police and found to be a completely accidental incident typical of many households with small children, entirely unworthy of prosecution. Child Safety, not having to meet a criminal standard of evidence before it can ban parents from seeing their children, has a much lower standard and can act with effectively no evidence at all. An allegation of this type, in this context, can be seen by some case workers as conclusive proof of child abuse and grounds for a two-year order.

To an innocent man, being labelled a child abuser is enough to push him very close to the edge, especially in the current climate of a presumption of guilt, rather than innocence. Some only hold on and stay alive because of their fear that suicide will be misinterpreted as an admission of guilt that will smear their name to their children years down the road.

Supporting Men Following Separation

Men’s issues have long been in the background, as men have not traditionally pursued the same kind of help that women are open to. However, there is a growing movement towards fathers demanding equal treatment as parents.

If you are a man who is even starting down the paths that the men above have travelled, I would be happy to put you in touch with like-minded Dads, while helping you through the process of what really should be called Post-Separation Traumatic Stress Disorder.  On Facebook there is the Australian Fathers’ Rights Movement, as well as The Australian Brotherhood of Fathers also provides emergency consultations for men in crisis.

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*The above article was originally published at www.drtravisgee.com
*Dr. Travis Gee offers support services to men following separation, and for men suffering depression.

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