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A prominent men’s rights group backed by One Nation claims 21 men commit suicide each week because of child support and custody disputes, but official data suggests the reasons are far more complicated. By Jane Gilmore.

The complexity of male suicide

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised when Leith Erikson posted a screenshot of my email to his 54,000 Facebook followers. I was asking where he found the data for his claim that 21 fathers die by suicide each week because of child support and custody disputes – a statistic frequently cited by Pauline Hanson in relation to the announcement of another government inquiry into family law.

The “21 fathers” figure is a central campaign line of the Australian Brotherhood of Fathers, a men’s rights group founded by Erikson. ABF members often set up shop outside family courts with placards citing the claim. They say they’re providing support to families and protesting against what they view as processes of the family court that are deeply unfair to men. The group is aligned with One Nation. Erikson has appeared in promotional videos with One Nation senator Malcolm Roberts and One Nation’s former Queensland leader Steve Dickson, while ABF has hosted sausage sizzles at One Nation election events. In August 2018, Erikson registered the ABF’s political party, Australian Better Families. The party ran six senate candidates and one lower house candidate in the 2019 federal election, none of whom won a seat.

Rather than responding to my query about the “21 fathers” claim, Erikson asked his followers to contact me directly. I expected to spend the day fighting off trolls, while many of the commenters on the post clearly anticipated that I would be the enemy.

It turns out we were both wrong.

Not one of Erikson’s followers got in touch with me in response to his post. There were no abusive messages, no personal stories of stolen children and lying ex-wives, but also no one citing the source of the “21 fathers” claim. Which makes sense, because there isn’t one. According to ABF’s website, the figure comes from “anecdotal evidence” of other men’s rights activists.

Of the nearly 200 comments responding to Erikson’s post about my email, scores were from men sharing grief over family breakdown. Others were furious with me – and other women – who write about men’s violence against women. But just as many were ABF followers who wanted to know the answer to my question.

What we know is that each week at least 44 men die by suicide in Australia. It is the leading cause of death for men aged under 45 and accounts for the highest number of potential years of life lost of any cause of death. Men are three times more likely to take their own life than women.

Recent research from Beyond Blue and Movember shows the number of suicide attempts by men – one of the key predictors of death by suicide – is astronomically high. There were more than 110,000 ambulance attendances for men experiencing acute mental health issues in 2015-16. More than 40 per cent of them were return visits for men still in crisis, and 80 per cent required hospitalisation. This data excluded Western Australia and South Australia, so the national numbers would be even higher.

So, the question is: why is this happening? ABF purports that it is due to onerous child-support payments and women using false claims of abuse to deny fathers access to their children. The data suggests the answer is far more complicated.

“There is no single factor that contributes to suicide, suicidal ideation or suicidal thinking or suicidal behaviour,” says Marc Bryant, program manager for suicide prevention at Everymind, a national institute dedicated to research and programs targeting the prevention of mental ill health and suicide. “The factors that contribute to someone taking their own life can be very complex.”

Erikson’s followers often suggest the Australian Bureau of Statistics refuses to collect data on the issues that lead to suicide. However, the bureau did attempt to connect psychosocial (personal and social) risk factors with death by suicide in a recent pilot study. Using data from police and coroner’s courts on suicides in 2017, the researchers found almost all suicides involved multiple risk factors and very few could be attributed to a single cause.

Of the just under 2000 deaths by suicide where risk factors could be reliably established, there were only 11 where “missing family member” was reported as the sole risk. Where there was only one reported risk factor, divorce or separation accounted for 180 deaths. This category captured people separated from their children but also included people who had family members go missing in other circumstance, and was not broken down by gender. Suicides where this was identified as a risk were almost three times more likely to also include other contributing factors, such as history of self-harm and mental illness.

The ABS says this is a pilot study and the bureau expects to refine the data over time. However, the initial report is still robust enough to support research from Australia and beyond that shows men are at much higher risk of suicide than women, and that a history of self-harm is one of the key predictors of suicide. Men are also more at risk than women when an intimate relationship breaks down, although, again, there are almost always other factors involved.

The reason men are more at risk after a break-up is difficult to determine. Research indicates men may be more dependent on their partners for intimacy and to facilitate family or community connections. Without their partners, they may be prone to isolation and be less able to manage pre-existing conditions. Archive data from the ABS shows similar suicide rates for men experiencing a marriage breakdown and those who have been widowed. The connecting factor was not divorce or custody disputes, it was the dissolution of the intimate partner relationship.

Joycelyn’s brother was going through a “messy break-up” with his wife – arguing about access and child-support payments – when he died by suicide eight years ago. He was 38.

Joycelyn says she did blame her brother’s ex in the immediate aftermath of grief and anger. “But now I can step back, I can see that the situation with the ex didn’t help, but it’s totally wrong to say it’s her fault,” she says. “He needed support. He needed help. He didn’t get it. There are so many reasons for what he did. It’s never just one thing.”

For years before his suicide, Joycelyn’s brother struggled with mental illness. She says she and her family tried to get help for him but, because he was intelligent and articulate, he presented “too well” to get treatment. By the time he had spiralled so far that he had to be hospitalised, he saw it as punishment and found it more upsetting than helpful.

“We’re African, so it’s an extra complication. Within our community mental illness is looked at as laziness not a health issue, but our men will not speak to a white man about their issues,” she says. “They just won’t. If you’re a Sudanese man, you know a Western man won’t understand all the issues you have. You need to be able to talk to someone who understands you. You need to know you’re not alone.”

Dr Michelle Tye, a senior research fellow with the Black Dog Institute, agrees that the risks for suicide are complex and points to a well-established reluctance by men to seek help. “Not receiving help may compound episodes of depression and distress,” says Tye, “and can lead to self-medicating, which can intensify these feelings, increasing the risk of suicide.”

She adds that attributing men’s suicide to a single cause could prove dangerous. “It potentially forces us to lose sight of other risk factors and concentrates prevention efforts to one small part of the problem, which may only affect a small portion of people at risk,” she says. “Services are available, there’s more work to be done to improve availability and access to them, but even informal support groups like Men’s Shed may help to provide support to protect against risk”.

Joycelyn says she understands people looking for someone or something to blame: “It’s so emotional, so painful, watching someone you love go through that. It’s so hard to understand and you just want a reason for it.”

As demonstrated by the ABF’s “21 fathers” claim, anecdotes are not data. But they can be useful to explain the lived experience behind data trends. Joycelyn’s loss is one such story.

After coming to terms with her brother’s death, Joycelyn wants the same thing everyone affected by male suicide has been calling for – better services for men who need help. “We have groups like Alcoholics Anonymous where you can just turn up every day and talk about how you’re feeling and get help if you’re struggling and it’s all confidential. Why do you have to have an addiction for that?

“People like my brother, they need to be able to talk to someone who understands them,” says Joycelyn. “Too many men feel like they’re alone. They’re not, but they don’t always know that. I wish all the men in trouble could have that feeling, that they’re not alone. I think it would make a difference.”

Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467; MensLine Australia 1300 789 978; The National Sexual Assault, Family & Domestic Violence Counselling Service 1800 737 732.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 12, 2019 as "State of numbers". Subscribe here.

Jane Gilmore
is a freelance journalist and the author of Fixed It: Violence and the Representation of Women in the Media.