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Keith Rankin: The Last Taboo

The Last Taboo

Keith Rankin, 28 March 2001

We are starting to acknowledge that suicide is a topic that must be discussed and discussed openly. But in New Zealand almost all the media references are to youth suicide. However in 1998 - the latest year for which New Zealand suicide statistics have been published - 57 percent of suicides were by men aged over 25. A recent article in the NZ Herald - "Stemming the Black Tide of Suicide" - notes indirectly that 75% of suicides are not youth suicides and then proceeds to assume that the suicide problem is a youth problem.

If Australian data are a useful guide, the rate of suicide among middle aged men in New Zealand is rising rapidly, while youth and female suicide rates will be falling. Australian suicide rates for 1998 were much the same as New Zealand rates, except that male youth suicide was markedly lower. Two-thirds of Australian suicides were men over 25. New Zealand men over 25 have the same suicide rate as Australian men over 25.

It is clear from all countries except China that suicide is a male issue; much more a male issue than a youth issue. We remain in denial about middle age male suicide. (Old age male suicide remains high, but the trends, especially in Britain, are that it is coming down.)

One obvious but incomplete explanation is that there is something in the culture of "generation-X" (born c.1963-77) males that make them especially vulnerable to suicide. As they have moved into the 25-plus age bracket, the bulge in the suicide statistics has moved with them. Indeed work by American demographer and economic historian Richard Easterlin claimed that such a generation, born on the trailing edge of a baby boom, will have higher death rates from almost all causes throughout their lives.

Another incomplete explanation relates to particular very stressful jobs. I have been told that male doctors (GPs) have (or had until recently) double the average suicide rate. A particularly disturbing recent development is that, according to a TV1 Assignment documentary screened last Thursday, five recent aeroplane crashes have been linked to pilot suicide.

A further incomplete explanation relates to relative poverty. Death rates - especially but not only suicides and other violent deaths - are much higher, in relatively affluent countries, among the relatively poor. That's the finding of public health historian Richard Wilkinson in his 1996 book Unhealthy Societies.

We can probably say that the rate of male mental illness is increasing; that of 25-44 year-old males in particular in recent years. But that still begs the question as to how changes in society - and which changes in society - are creating mental illness, and why the problem is so gender- specific. It seems likely that men are increasingly being placed in situations of contradictory expectations; that "society" expects them to follow at least two mutually exclusive roles simultaneously.

It was a crass panel discussion on Holmes last night that convinced me I should write about suicide this week. The item was ostensibly about tightening up on solo mothers who do not name the father of their child. The panel consisted of Steve Maharey, Muriel Newman and Merepeka Raukawa-Tait. But it was really about the morality - or at least the presumed immorality - of men who are "absent fathers". This remains taboo. We prefer to hold righteous opinions than to accept that men who are separated from their children face - and try to face up to - some of the most emotionally difficult moral dilemmas that any person can face. We prefer to simply label such men "deadbeats" or "bludgers" or "losers" or "cads". We condemn them for not being active parents. We condemn them for not paying "child support" to the state. We forget that men have emotions. We consign too many men to sadness, if not to madness.

The tone set by Paul Holmes in particular was that children are a form of punishment that sexually incontinent males inflict on their female victims on drunken Saturday nights and that, whatever else such men do with their lives, they must bear that cost 'like a man' on behalf of the women they violate.

Steve Maharey looked uncomfortable, and perhaps will regret having been seen to accept Holmes' analysis in its simplistic totality. For Maharey, the issue was purely fiscal. The government wants to recover more of the "child support" money that he clearly understands many "absent fathers" use to support their children. For Maharey and Holmes, fathers of children whose mothers are receiving a benefit are "double-dippers". How dare they seek to help their typically impoverished children when the correct legal and (for Holmes) the unquestioned moral action is that they must pay their child support money to the state rather than spend it on their children? Thanks to the efforts of Child Poverty Action (publishers of Our Children; the Priority for Policy), we know that children dependent on parental benefits or low parental wages are the principal victims of poverty in this country. Thanks in large part to our ill-named Child Support legislation, such children are trapped into poverty.

Newman and Raukawa-Tait managed to chip in with some useful points to the effect that the situation wasn't as simple as Holmes painted it. But Holmes's guests were no more than accessories around which the host could air his prejudices - or his perception of his audience's prejudices.

Yes there probably are some men who leave the wife and kids - or the one- night stand - and drive off into the sunrise in their expensive European cars. They are the one's for whom the 1991 Child Support Act was drafted. Most absent fathers could not be further from the stereotype.

The following is quoted directly from Suicide in Australia, a Dying Shame, published in November 2000 by the Wesley Mission.

"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 men differently. Whilst suicides may simply be recorded as statistics, it is the increasing number of murder/suicides, involving children that have brought the tragic reality of male suicide, and male mental health issues in general into the public arena. Where children are concerned, there is evidence to suggest that many men sense they are being discriminated against in Family Court judgements, and often find themselves in financial straits having to pay legal fees and child support payments. The difficulty in maintaining access to children also heightens the frustration and isolation of separated and/or divorced men.

"Following two murder/suicides in Western Australia in 1999, where fathers gassed both themselves and their children to death, Allan Huggins, director of Men's Health, Teaching and Research at Curtin University, said "There is a whole range of psychological issues for them to deal with, but ultimately they see their situation as being totally hopeless and then a realm of fantasy begins where they want to take their children with them to what they perceive as being a better place." It seems that 'stressed fathers will keep killing' both themselves and their children, until adequate support services are provided. Professor Pierre Baume, Head of the Australian Institute for Suicide Research and Prevention at Griffith University in Queensland found that, in a study of 4,000 suicides, at least 70% were associated with relationship break-ups. Men were 9 times more likely to take their own lives following break-up than women.

"Why do men and women respond so differently to separation? Research suggests that the majority of divorces are initiated by women, and that in most cases, married men did not want to separate and had tried to resolve the problems. Further evidence suggests that the period of 'separation' is one of the most stressful times in a man's life, and often this anxiety and frustration continues for many years."

I published a paper in 1999 on the way that the Child Support legislation makes it extremely expensive if not impossible for separated fathers (ie 'secondary caregivers') to have effective contact with their children. (See Fiscal and Welfare Barriers to Effective Fatherhood, or the revised internet-only version.)

My paper considers the financial position of a separated father of three whose only financial debt is a student loan. In order to provide a roof for his children during access, I assumed he would rent an apartment for $200 per week. If he was unemployed, after paying rent, tax and child support (which most likely would be paid to the state and not to his ex), he would have $2.34 to spend on himself and his children. (In practice, he would have to live in accommodation unsuitable for access.) If he then got a job grossing $500 per week, he would in effect keep 20% of that $500, leaving himself and his children a total of $102 per week for food, bills, transport etc.

Most "absent fathers" did not desert the mothers of their children. More likely the mothers initiated the separation. Further, most children arise from a mutual rather than a one-sided act of conception. It is a gross insult to all children for them to be regarded as little more than an unfortunate consequence of the thoughtless lust of one or both of their parents.

What does a father do if he wants to be there for his children, or at least wants to help provide for his children, but the combined forces of the state and the righteous Mr Holmes dictate that his moral duty is to live in poverty and pay his 18%, 24%, 27% or 30% to the state as a means of funding his former partner's benefit. (We don't oblige adult children to pay for their retired parents' public pensions. Why the inconsistency?)

Increasing numbers of mothers choose to not name the fathers of their children because fathers who pay "child support" cannot afford to support their children. Most separated fathers want to have effective contact with and provide financial support for their children. Many impoverished fathers, unable to do either, will be judged as deadbeats. Such fathers are "marginal men".

If we cannot sympathise with men who are no longer fathers to their children, we must at least learn to empathise with them. The last taboo is the suicide of fathers. Fathers, like pilots, are prone to taking others with them when they commit suicide. By sneering at the very real moral dilemmas that estranged fathers face, we - the adjudicating public, the audience that Paul Holmes plays to - help to create the mental illnesses that cause so much tragedy.

(c) 2001 Keith Rankin

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