And 'dying' for mental health research!
Reprinted from "Men" issue of Visions Journal, 2005, 2(5), pp. 18-19
A Family Tragedy
The recent news that two parents and a child had been murdered sent shock waves throughout Toronto. A tragedy at any time, this seemed particularly horrific. Only weeks before Christmas, and two young children left without either parent.
Why had it happened? Neighbours described them as a perfect couple. He loved her so much. She was always smiling. There was no warning.
Within hours, media reports advised that one parent had likely killed the other, and then killed their child, then committed suicide. Stories swirled about a possible family dispute, laying rapid foundation to speculation the father had become enraged and had 'lost it'.
Forensics, however, soon made it clear that the mother did the killing. Shocked police reported that we may never know why. But others had already jumped in to fill in the missing pieces.
Within 48 hours of the event, countless experts were lining up, saying the mom was a victim, even though she was a murderer. Mental health and social service professionals covered the airwaves. They described types of postpartum depression, saying that up to 70% of mothers experience depression following birth, and outlining support available to assist mothers experiencing this horrible depression. Advocates even accused the government of indirect responsibility because of insufficient support for women following birth.1
The tragedy had apparently been solved: everyone was a victim. Depression is serious and we definitely want to do what we can to help those with it, especially to avoid tragedies. Health professionals called for more research and support for mothers. But no one mentioned protection and services for fathers and children at risk from violent postpartum outbursts.
What if the genders in the tragedy had been reversed? What if the dad had killed his wife, murdered their child, and then committed suicide? What response then?
What if Dad had been a victim of circumstances such as family separation, which can induce a severe state of depression in fathers — one that could cause a dad to not only contemplate suicide, but to want to harm close family members? To avoid future tragedies, would health professionals call for more mental health research and social services for fathers experiencing extreme stress?
Based on recent history, advocates would likely brand Dad a cowardly perpetrator of family violence. Far from being a possible victim of severe depression or a mental disorder, dad would be charged as a male seeking control over his wife and family. Rather than identifying a separated father as a member of an at-risk group needing support, advocates would urge more protection for women and children against angry men and fathers.
Men Much More Likely to Commit Suicide
To help ensure safety for every citizen, the mental health community can ontribute to a better understanding of all types of family murder and suicide. Why are 3,000 Canadian men committing suicide annually? This is four times the rate for women. 2 What is the impact of family separation on the mental health of fathers?
Dr. David Crawford and Professor John Macdonald of the University of Western Sydney reported that the pain of separation and divorce is having an alarming effect on the health of Australian males. They conclude relationship breakdown and divorce are leaving many men, especially fathers, emotionally broken and unable to cope, contributing to high rates of suicide and harm of others.3
Divorced Men at Higher Risk
Dr. Paul Links, professor of psychiatry and chair of suicide studies at the University of Toronto, reports that difficult divorces or loss of children fit the profile of loss leading to suicide. Divorced men kill themselves twice as often as single or married men, 5 and since men in general commit suicide four times as frequently as women, 2 divorced men commit suicide eight times more often than women in the general population. Yet, little is known about male suicidal behaviour in Canada.
Suicide exacts a terrible toll on society, emotionally and financially, but very little research is available. The mean total cost estimate per suicide death in 1996 was $849,878. 6 Based on the approximately 3,000 male suicides across Canada in 1998,7 the total cost in 1998 for male suicides across Canada would have been approximately $2.5 billion.
It has been 10 years since the Task Force on Suicide in Canada reported a pressing need for more information on suicidal behaviours. With nearly 3,000 men and fathers dying annually through suicide, the urgency seems obvious.7
To develop innovative and effective approaches to suicide prevention, more knowledge of the causes and factors that increase risk is required. It’s time for Canada’s mental health community to bring its expertise and professionalism to the table and launch a series of fresh studies on the psychological stresses and emotional pressures fathers and men are experiencing.
Dead fathers need to be listened to—so we can help every child and family member.
About the author
James is a Board Secretary for the Toronto Men's Health Network, and is a social marketing consultant and family mediator.
- Carey, E. (2004, December 3). Mother is prime suspect: Psychosis is not just ‘baby blues.’ Toronto Star, p. C4.
- Langlois, S. & Morrison, M. (2002). Suicide deaths and attempts. Canadian Social Trends, 66, 20-25. A publication of Statistics Canada.
- Crawford, D. & Macdonald, J. (2002, October). Fathers and the Experience of Family Separation. Paper presented at the First National Conference on Mental Health of Persons Affected by Family Separation, Liverpool, UK.
- Grewal, S. (2002, February 15). Men, divorce and suicide. Toronto Star, p. F1.
- Kposowa, A. (2000). Marital status and suicide in the National Longitudinal Mortality Study. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 54, 254-261.
- Clayton, D. & Barcel, A. (2000). The cost of suicide mortality in New Brunswick, 1996. Chronic Diseases in Canada, 20(3).
- Health Canada. (1994). Suicide in Canada: Update of the report of the task force on suicide in Canada. Retrieved February 1, 2005 from the Public Health Agency of Canada website at www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/mh-sm/mentalhealth/pdfs/suicid_e.pdf
- Statistics Canada Health Statistics Division. (2001). Mortality, summary list of causes. Ottawa ON: Statistics Canada. A shelf table of 1998 statistics, catalogue no. 84F0209XPB.