Escalating male suicide
By Wendy McElroy
In the early morning hours of Jan. 7, 43-year-old Derrick K. Miller walked up to a security guard at the entrance to the San Diego Courthouse, where a family court had recently ruled against him on overdue child support.
Clutching court papers in one hand, he drew out a gun with the other. Declaring: "You did this to me," he fatally shot himself through the skull.
Miller's suicide is symbolic of a frightening global trend: an alarming rise in male suicides. According to a round of studies conducted in North America, Europe and Australia, one reason for the increase may be the discrimination fathers encounter in family courts, especially the denial of access to their children.
If a similar rise in female suicides was occurring, a public crusade would demand a remedy. Yet the extraordinarily high rate of male suicide is rarely discussed.
What are the statistics? According to a 1999 surgeon general's report, suicide is the eighth leading cause of death in America, with men four times more likely to kill themselves than women.
The prevalence of male suicide is not restricted to North America. An Australian study offered similar statistics. Of 2,683 suicides in Australia in 1998, 2,150 were males, making suicide the second leading cause of death among 25- to 44-year-old men. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reports that the suicide rate for men aged 20 to 39 years has risen by 70 percent over the last two decades.
Statistics from Ireland and the United Kingdom indicate rates of male suicide as high as five times that of women. Indeed, a recent study found that suicide was the leading cause of death for Irish men between 15-34 years old.
The research also points to a probable cause. According to sociologist Augustine Kposow of the University of California at Riverside, divorce and loss of children is a factor. "As far as the [divorced] man is concerned, he has lost his marriage and lost his children and that can lead to depression and suicide," Kposow advises.
The Australian study's suggested reasons for some of the suicides include "marriage breakdown."
"There is evidence to suggest that many men sense they are being discriminated against in family court judgements," the study says. Cut off from their children, divorced men experience heightened "frustration and isolation."
Yet, the motivation for male suicide remains a matter for speculation because little research has focused on the subject.
Telling the stories of such forgotten men has been left largely to fathers' rights Web sites such as Dads4Kids.
There you read about Warren Gilbert who died of carbon monoxide poisoning, clutching a letter from the Child Protective Service. Or Martin Romanchick ó the New York City police officer who hanged himself after being denied access due to charges brought by his ex-wife, which the court found to be frivolous.
Or Darrin White, a Canadian who hanged himself after being denied access because he could not pay child support that was twice his take-home pay. His 14-year-old daughter wrote a letter to the Canadian prime minister in which she pointed to "the frustration and hopelessness caused in dealing with Canada's family justice system" as the "biggest factor" in her father's death.
"I know my father was a good man and a good father. ... He obviously reached a point where he could see that justice was beyond his reach and for reasons that only God will know, decided that taking his life was the only way to end his suffering," Ashlee White wrote. Ashlee signed the letter "In Memory of My Loving Father."
Are family court systems deeply biased against fathers? I believe so. But discussing the matter is almost a taboo. How prevalent is the silence? When did you last hear a discussion of whether a "father" should have any voice in abortion? Even raising the issue draws derisive and dismissive responses. Yet if men are forced to bear legal responsibility for children, then it is not absurd to ask whether they should have some prerogatives as well.
The point here is not how the question should be answered. The point is that the question should be asked.
Derrick Miller may be a poor choice as a cause celebre for fathers' rights. His suicide may have been triggered by mental illness or by drug abuse. Yet Miller is symbolic not merely of the discrimination against fathers but also of the discrimination encountered by men's mental health issues.
For example, the National Organization for Women showed no reluctance in championing the mentally disturbed Andrea Yates who killed her five children ó a much more heinous act. But Yates is a woman and will be viewed as a de facto "victim" by a significant portion of society ó even in the shadow of her infants' dead bodies. Conversely, Miller is a man and he carries one of the greatest social stigmas: deadbeat dad. Thus, even the dramatic circumstances of his suicide prompted only six paragraphs in The San Diego Union-Tribune.
The stakes are too high for the media to remain disinclined to comment. As men's rights activist James R. Hanback Jr. remarked in an article about Miller, "No matter who you are or where you live, chances are there is a man in your life ... who has been through some of the pain and anguish associated with divorce, child custody, or child support battles."
Male suicide must be confronted honestly before America follows the way of Ireland, before suicide becomes the leading cause of death in young men. And, perhaps, in a man you know and love.
Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the forthcoming anthology Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.
provided for the survival of man against all enemies except his fellow man.
Good men must die, but death cannot kill their names.
On Jan. 7, a 43-year-old man, apparently depressed about a recent overdue child support ruling against him, shot himself to death on the steps of the San Diego Courthouse.
According to reports in the San Diego Union Tribune, Derrick K. Miller walked up to a security guard around 6:25 a.m. and began raving about injustices thrust upon him by the legal system. Court papers in one hand, he produced a handgun with the other and fired one shot into his skull, instantly killing himself.
What the six-paragraph story in the Union Tribune doesnít say, however, is that Millerís actions represent a small sampling of a disturbing trend all over the world. Men who are fed up with what they see as injustices perpetrated upon them by court systems that, in cases of child custody, child support, and divorce, generally favor women, are increasingly taking their own lives.
The problem has become so widespread, in fact, that some governmentsóAustraliaís, for instanceóhave implemented new programs aimed at getting suicidal men help in overcoming the urge to end it all. Likewise, official studies from both Australia and Ireland within the past year have connected an alarming increase in male suicide in their respective countries to the breaking down of family structure, and a perception by men of wrong-doing to them perpetrated by the legal system.
According to the Irish study, five times more men than women in that country die from suicide each year, and more than 40 percent of those are men under 30. The principle cause of death for men between the ages of 15-34 in Ireland, in fact, is suicide. Once upon a time, more men died from traffic accidents.
The Irish report further stated that the "strong protective effect of marriage" was confirmed as prevention for male suicide. Single, separated, divorced, or widowed individuals all had higher suicide rates.
In similar fashion, the Australian study found that younger men in that country were particularly susceptible to suicide upon divorce or separation from their children.
"Recent research into male suicide in this age
group revealed that males in the 'separation phase' of a marriage break-up
were most at risk of suicide, compared with widowed or divorced males,"
the reportís authors wrote. "Marriage breakdown is a significant
characteristic of male suicide in the 24-39 age bracket. The anxiety and
emotional pain of separation and divorce appear to effect [sic] men
Two studies, two separate nations, and a plethora of social scientists have thus apparently confirmed what individual families have known and news reports have ignored for years: family courts all over Western society are unfair to men, and some men are dying as a result. In the U.S. alone, statistics from the Centers for Disease Control estimate that approximately 80 percent of all suicides every year are by men. Compared to homicide rates recorded by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the number of suicides every year in this country is about 32 percent higher than the number of homicides.
Although both the Irish and Australian studies suggest that mental health professionals should focus more on men and getting men to help themselves out of the depressions which result in suicide, perhaps a greater contributor to menís well-being would be to reform family courts. Perhaps itís time to change things so that men going through divorce, child custody battles, and child support hearings are given a fair shake.
Even in these days of Western feminine liberation there are men who pay alimony. Why? Women in Western culture have been welcomed into the workplace. Everyone knows a woman can make her own ends meet if she so chooses. If, in divorce, the female is absolved from all marital obligations to her former husband, why should he still be forced to be her breadwinner?
Likewise, child support is no longer about providing for children. It is a multi-million dollar industry designed to generate revenue for individual state governments, at least in the United States. Visit any fathers advocates forum on the Internet and youíll find a variety of horror stories about child support rulings which deprive a man of his own livelihood, while his ex-wife maintains custody of the children, denies him visitation, and has married another man who is also providing for her.
Adding insult to injury, thereís even a Yahoo! Group dedicated to informing women about how to achieve this particular lifestyle. Itís called "Ex-husband Is Now My Slave" and currently has more than 900 members. You can find it here: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Ex-husband_is_now_my_slave/.
So if the family court situation is the root cause of so much trouble--and is creating a world where men take their own lives out of desperation and women brag about it on the Internet--why, apparently, is nothing being done to change it?
That answer lies in the media. No matter who you are or where you live, chances are there is a man in your life, or in your extended family, who has been through some of the pain and anguish associated with divorce, child custody, or child support battles. Chances are that the toll of that situation was much greater on him than his former spouse. In America, divorce court is routine, and fictionalized accounts of it are even broadcast on daytime television. Unfortunately for the men involved in genuine cases, though, the media tends to ignore the courtsí consistent discrimination against them as simple facts of life which cannot (or should not) be changed.
Miller--he who shot himself on the San Diego Courthouse steps--is the exception which proves the rule. His case was so dramatic--and publicóas a result of his suicide that the Union Tribune could not ignore it. But what happens now that his brief story has been told? Will an intrepid reporter examine the suicide rates of divorced men in San Diego and discover a pattern? Will said reporter examine the family court system from the inside out and determine for himself whether justice is routinely served or men routinely discriminated against?
Itís not probable.
Instead, the Union Tribune reporters will do precisely what I did when I faced a similar story as a police reporter for The Review Appeal in Franklin, Tenn., in the mid-1990s. Theyíll simply go on about their business--writing about budgets, schools, police chases, and criminal trials--until the next man kills himself on the courthouse steps in similar dramatic fashion. Then theyíll write six more paragraphs about it and move on again.
Thatís what good police reporters do.
Sometimes I think back on that bright production day at The Review Appeal. I remember I was writing a small two-paragraph note for what we called "The Police Blotter" about someone who had exposed himself (and escaped police) at a local mall. The radio scanner had been silent all afternoon and, just two hours before we were to put the paper to bed, I heard two sentences from a preternaturally calm female voice creep across the airwaves on the Franklin Police Departmentís frequency:
"Heís on the Square. Heís got a gun to his head."
My office chair was probably still spinning as I ran out the door.
Two streets down was Public Square, the Franklin town center where there were several shops, Franklin City Hall, and the Williamson County Courthouse. No sooner had I turned the corner where I could see the tall statue in the Square gleaming against the afternoon sun than I heard the gunshot, and saw a crowd of police and emergency personnel swarm in upon the man as his formerly seated body crumpled to the concrete.
While my photographer snapped away at the scene, I talked to witnesses and police officers. I asked where the man had come from, who he was, and why he might have committed such an act.
Some faces in the crowd told me they had seen the man walk out of the courthouse, so while my editor continued to interview witnesses, I went to see the Williamson County Court Clerk. There, I learned the manís identity and that he had spent most of the day in divorce court. After apparently losing his job, his wife, and a battle with depression, he had finally given up hope.
The article I wrote for the paper the next day contained all the details a good police reporter includes: who, what, when, where, and some possible reasons why. I had quotes from the officers who worked the scene as well as a few notes from the court filings. When I finished writing, I walked outside and smoked a Marlboro I bummed from someone in the production department (even though Iím not a smoker). The image of that man with the gun played over and over in my head, and as I exhaled the stale smoke of the cigarette from my lungs, I wondered what smoke and gunpowder from a firearm must taste like at such close range.
Sometimes I think back on that bright production day, and I wonder why I didnít continue to follow up on that story. I wonder why I felt that examining that manís case in the cold light of an objective reporterís eye wasnít worth pursuing. I wonder what I might have found had I been persistent.
Most of all, though, I wonder if I might not have been able to shed some light and create change in some small way.
And maybe saved someone elseís life.
Thatís what a good reporter should have done.
Date: 22 January 2002 02:03
Subject: [ukmm] CENTRE FOR PEOPLE AT RISK FROM SUICIDE
>May you trust your highest power that you are exactly
>where you are meant to be....
>Centre aims to cut suicide rate
>The new service hopes to offer a listening ear
>People at risk from suicide are being offered help from a dedicated centre,
>thought to be the first of its kind in the UK, which is opening in Glasgow.
>The unit is run by the charity Facilitate Scotland.
>It says the number of people taking their own lives in Scotland has more
>doubled since the 1970s.
>The charity's chairman is the former Scotland, Celtic and Manchester United
>footballer, Lou Macari, whose teenage son took his own life nearly three
>Lou Macari: Backing the campaign
>Jonathan, 19, was found hanged from a tree after he turned to drugs when
>own football career failed.
>Mr Macari, 52, currently manager of Huddersfield FC, said the unit's
>counsellors had already managed to reduce the number of young people using
>alcohol or drugs to ease their distress.
>He now hopes the centre will allow them to do more good work.
>Mr Macari said: "Scotland, I believe, has one of the highest suicide rates
>"And obviously, having experienced it myself I realise what affects it has
>those left behind.
>"Sometimes it can be avoided, and with the help of Facilitate, if they can
>that with even one person, then it's a plus."
>Many of the people who contact Facilitate Scotland are suffering from
>bullying or debt problems.
>The organisation's volunteers have had up to 500 hours special training to
>deal with the tough task.
>In October last year, an Edinburgh University report revealed that suicide
>rates among young Scottish men were double those in England.
>It also said men aged between 15 and 24 were six times more likely to take
>their own lives than women.
>In the last 30 years, the number of males aged between 25 and 34 who have
>taken their lives has leapt by 245%.
>Facilitate Scotland's George Hunter said: "We are all vulnerable and
>can trigger off the thought of suicide.
>"All it takes is for that thought to get out of hand and for the person to
>feel that there is no other option for them but to commit suicide."
> ON THIS STORY
> Forbes McFall reports
>"The suicide rate in Scotland is rising"
>09 Oct 00 | Scotland
>Alarming rise in suicide rate
>27 Sep 00 | Health
>'Suicide risk' for doctors and nurses
>16 Aug 00 | Health
>Voice changes 'predict' suicide risk
>06 Jul 00 | Health
>Suicide 'linked to' the moon
>13 Oct 99 | Health
>29 Apr 99 | UK
>Football manager's son found hanged