Separated fathers: men in crisis

Date: 09/10/2002

The pain of separation and divorce is having an alarming effect on the mental health of Australian males and may be contributing to our high rates of male suicide according to UWS academics.

Dr David Crawford and Professor John Macdonald from the University's Men's Health Information and Resource Centre say relationship breakdown and divorce are leaving many men emotionally broken and unable to cope.

"Australian research shows that divorce is rated as one of the most distressing life events for men and women," says Professor Macdonald.

"In 2000 there were some 50, 000 divorces -- 23, 600 of those were families with children. With 42% of first marriages failing, we are increasingly seeing the devastating effects that separation has on people's mental health and well-being, particularly men who are often an overlooked casualty in divorce."

Professor Macdonald says this inability to cope with the aftermath of separation could be one of the reasons for Australia's high rate of male suicide.

"Recently separated fathers are an extremely high-risk group for suicide and self-harm," says Professor Macdonald.

"A great proportion of men who go through family breakdown experience considerable psychological stress. While most of the men begin to cope well after about two years, a sizeable number do not.

"Research shows that separated men are six times more likely to suicide than married men and this was greatest in the age group up to 29 years. Separated males aged 30-54 years are 12 times more likely to suicide than separated women."

Professor Macdonald believes there are many reasons why men are finding it difficult to come to terms with their newly-separated status.

"Separated fathers find it tough to cope with basic daily living. These men have to begin a new life, which is incredibly difficult," he says.

"Many feel an acute loss of family life and their self-identity as a parent. They also feel disconnected from their children and have difficulties in establishing new life routines and new friendships."

"Family law and related financial issues are also problematic for separated fathers. Access to children, court proceedings, maintenance, even false allegations of abuse have been encountered.

"It's difficult to have a meaningful relationship with your children when you are allowed little more than fortnightly contact with them."

Professor Macdonald called for more support services for men who experience family breakdown and find it tough.

"The period immediately after separation is the most difficult time for such men, however look in the telephone directory for services for separated fathers and you'll find virtually all the services are for women," he says.

"The perception seems to be that men should be stoic and 'soldier on' in silence. It's considered that women are more likely to seek help and emotional support from friends, doctors, counsellors, religious counsel and marriage guidance groups.

"Men are reluctant to use such services because they believe that counselling doesn't work and the services are really for women.

"We need to re-think the community health and counselling services offered to couples experiencing separation and divorce. We need to establish ways to make them more appealing and suitable to men of all ages so they are not left to cope on their own.

"Society also needs to adopt a more inclusive view of families. We must object to post-divorce arrangements that allow children to become needlessly distant from their fathers. The mental health of the father must become a consideration -- they are not 'disposable dads'."

Dr Crawford and Professor Macdonald will present their paper, 'Fathers and the experience of family separation' at the First National Conference On Mental Health of Persons Affected by Family Separation at Liverpool Hospital today.

WHEN:Thursday 10 October 2002
WHERE:Education Centre, Liverpool Hospital

For more information or requests for interviews:
Amanda Whibley
Media Officer
Phone: 9678 7472
Mobile: 0418 438 399