(Undated article –  around March/April 2004?) 

“Our darling Greg died of a broken heart,” announced the death notice placed by his mother and sister when Federal MP Greg Wilton killed himself last year. Wilton’s death attracted massive publicity, highlighting the marriage break-up and loss of his children as events precipitating his drastic action. Three weeks earlier Wilton was found in a distressed state in a car with his two young children. 

Greg Wilton, 44, was well aware of the vulnerability of men in his situation. Three years earlier he gave a speech in parliament commenting on a report on youth suicide, pointing out that the group at greatest risk of killing themselves were adult men.

“From the extensive research [of] the last five years… it becomes apparent men kill themselves due to an inability to cope with life events such as relationship breakups of the kind [I] myself have suffered,” said Wilton, whose first marriage had ended in divorce. 

Each year in Australia over a thousand men aged 25-44 take their own lives.  The rate of suicide amongst these adult males is over twice the teen (15-19) suicide rate. Whilst the male teen suicide rate has been stable for the past decade, the rate for these adult males has been rising since the 1970’s.

Most of them, like Greg Wilton, are likely casualties of family breakdown. A Queensland study of 4,000 suicides found over 70 per cent were associated with relationship breakup. The study, conducted by Professor Pierre Baume, who’s now at Monash University, showed men were nine times more likely to take their lives following a break-up than women. 

In the 1990’s we spent over $31 million on youth suicide prevention. Yet to date no Commonwealth suicide funds have been targetted at the males showing the most consistent rise in suicide rates. The plight of these men has only just made it onto the national agenda. This month our peak suicide prevention body – the National Advisory Council on Suicide Prevention

– for the first time is considering national initiatives addressing this risk group. A series of meetings is being held between State and Federal suicide bodies, plus expert panels, to determine how to reach these men.

Professor Ian Webster, chairman of the council, names this group as the priority facing his committee. “It is a real problem for us. We are trying to determine how best to approach it. I don’t feel that as yet we have any clear way of engaging with this risk group or deciding how to appeal to them.”

Webster says his committee is likely to invite key research and interest groups to propose new initiatives – an invitation welcomed by Chris Cantor, a Queensland psychiatrist who has spent the past six years researching and writing journal articles drawing attention to the unmet needs of this risk group in current suicide policies.

Cantor, who conducted some of his original research with Pierre Baume at Griffith University’s Australian Institute for Suicide Research and Prevention, believes the link with relationship breakdown is critical. His own research shows the risk of suicide is far higher for men in the period following marital separation – the suicide risk amongst separated men was eighteen times
that of separated women – but once divorced, the rates for men declined to 3 times those of women.

Pierre Baume’s data also points to the separation period as the critical risk time. “The real risk is within four to six weeks of the separation rather than after divorce. Men are most vulnerable immediately after rejection,” he says. 

Chris Cantor questions whether the first weeks are so vital but feels this question needs exploring. He would like, through the Family Court, to track families from the point of separation through to six months post-divorce, with regular interviews of both parents and children to measure mental health, depression and suicidal tendencies. 

From his previous research, Cantor suspects that loss of meaningful contact with children will emerge as a major risk factor for suicide. His research shows women with children are less likely to commit suicide than similarly aged women without children. “It seems highly likely that most of the suicide problems associated with separated men may relate to child access problems. The research suggests that some non-custodial mothers may be in the same boat.” 

Overseas, other researchers are reaching similar conclusions. Augustine Kposowa, associate professor of sociology at the University of California at Riverside, analyzed data from the National Longitudinal Mortality Study and found the risk ratio for divorced men is 8.6 times the rate for divorced women. He too is convinced the key factor is men’s loss of their children. 

“Even with visitation rates, a man may not get to see his children. He’s already experienced loss of love through the breakup of the relationship and then he faces the loss of his children. This drives some men, especially in the early stages of separation, to come to the conclusion that life

is not worth living,” says Kposowa, who is currently researching the role of the court system and loss of custody in the heightened suicide risk for divorced men. 

Edward Kruk, social work professor at the University of British Columbia in Canada, has conducted research in both Britain and Canada on the impact of divorce on fathers. He found that after losing daily contact with their offspring the fathers in his study passed through a grieving process similar to that of parents whose child has died. Sixty one percent described mental health difficulties they had not experienced prior to the divorce, including suicidal tendencies. 

Meanwhile, in Australia an organization supporting separated men is gathering data which demonstrates worrying suicidal tendencies in separated men. MENDS (Men Exploring New Directional Strategies) programmes have been running for over six years, recently with Commonwealth government funding.  Psychological evaluations of over 500 men attending the programmes show most of these men fall into the highest risk category for “suicidality” – showing thinking processes and behaviour known to precede suicide. 

MENDS has evidence their programmes – based on education and the group support provided by men sharing similar experiences – have a significant effect on suicide risk during the critical separation period. 

But the problem is how to reach separated men who are floundering on their own. Pershouse believes he has a possible answer: “Between thirty and forty per cent of calls we get following up publicity about MENDS come from women.  They are mostly mothers, sisters, sometimes a work colleague or even the ex-wife. Women notice what’s happening to men they care about. They are the ones to target”

Pierre Baume agrees that women may provide the key to reaching these troubled men. He believes the ultimate solution lies in long-term cultural change – teaching boys that it is not unmanly to express their feelings so the separated man doesn’t end up so isolated. But given the reticence of the typical Australian male to admit he’s in trouble, Baume believes the answer lies in harnessing the power of women to get men to talk to them.

Women like Alice. That’s not her real name, but as the mother of a 23 year old who’s just attempted suicide, Alice naturally wants to avoid publicity.  Her son is reeling from the loss of his two-year defacto relationship. The couple has a three month old baby.

“This girl is his whole life. He feels life isn’t worth living without her and his new baby,” says Alice, who luckily works in NSW community services and was able to quickly obtain good psychiatric help for her son. Her nervousness is increased by the fact that three years ago her son attempted to hang himself when his first major relationship came to an end. 

Listening to this mother talk about her son’s dependency on his these two young women, one wonders how often broken relationships feature even in youth suicides, when young men suffer the loss of that first taste of intimacy after emotionally constrained years of male adolescence. 

Clearly relationship breakdown isn’t the whole story in the worrying increase in male suicide – there are numerous other relevant factors such as substance abuse, mental illness, and unemployment. But given the evidence suggesting it could be a key factor, at least it offers policy makers somewhere to start.

What Baume, Cantor and Pershouse are suggesting is public campaigns drawing attention to the fact that recently separated men are high risk. If we can run youth suicide prevention campaigns encouraging young men to look after their mates, why can’t we teach our community to watch out for men who’ve lost their families? Cantor, who suggests workplace initiatives may be effective, believes these men may be an easier target than youth, being more mature and aware of their responsibilities to their families. 

But Chris Cantor strongly argues that the risk will remain until men are treated more fairly by the Family Court and supported in their role as parents. The Howard government has shown a keen interest in such issues through the establishment of the Family Law Pathways Advisory Group whose final report has just been received.  Real reform will depend on the fate of the forthcoming federal election.  Whilst the Howard government already has a good record of initiatives supporting fathers and legislative attempts to rectify child support inequities – the opposition parties show little interest in the plight of divorced men.