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Men's Health America Special Report

About half of all American marriages end in divorce. It is well-known that divorce increases men's risk of suicide. Three studies have documented this phenomenon:

1. One study from the Centers for Disease Control analyzed suicides among elderly persons. The study found that in 1992, the rate for divorced/widowed men aged 65 years was more than 17 times that of married women. The report concluded, "Sex and marital status-specific suicide rates were highest for divorced/widowed men" (1).

2. Rogers analyzed the effects of marriage on persons who died in 1986. He found that men who were divorced or separated had a far greater risk of suicide (odds ratio = 6.1) than divorced or separated women (2).

3. Kposowa used a large, nationally-representative database to analyze the effects of marital status on suicide risk. He found that divorced men were more than twice as likely to commit suicide as married men (3), and almost 10 times more likely to kill themselves as divorced women (4).

Based on Kposowa's research, it is possible to tally the number of divorced men in the United States who take their own lives. These calculations reveal that each year, more than 3,600 divorced men -- about 10 every day -- commit suicide (5).

This figure is likely to be an underestimate because it does not include never-married men who had children and later lost custody, nor does it account for previously-divorced men who later remarried. Also, just because a man commits suicide while he is divorced does not necessarily mean he killed himself because of the divorce -- other factors no doubt play a role.

Loss of Child Custody and Suicide Risk-- Eighty-six percent of men have at least one child during their lifetimes (6). Using the 50% divorce rate figure, and knowing that fathers lose custody of their children about 80% of the time, it can be calculated that about 34% of American men will experience the loss of child custody sometime during their lives (7).

It is well-known that noncustodial fathers often experience high levels of psychological distress. Social scientists have made observations such as these:

--Wallerstein noted that postdivorce visits with children "can lead to depression and sorrow in men who love their children" (8).

--Ross observed that many divorced fathers are "overwhelmed by feelings of failure and self-hatred," and as a result are "disengaging from a family that is no longer really theirs" (9).

--Umberson and Williams highlighted the sense of failure that these fathers experience. As a result, these men "exhibit substantially higher rates of psychological distress and alcohol consumption than do married men." (10).

--Blankenhorn described non-custodial fathers in this way: "These men are very angry. Indeed, their white-hot sense of injustice can sometimes produce in them the phenomenon of pressured speech, in which emotional intensity derails normal conversational rhythms." (11).

So given the frequency and gravity of the problem, it is not surprising that numerous anecdotes have appeared in the popular press detailing non-custodial fathers who have resorted to killing themselves or others (12, 13).

A Cruel Irony

Over the past 20 years, society has admonished fathers to become more attentive to their families. As more wives entered the workforce, this relieved some of the financial pressure on men, and has allowed fathers to devote more time to their children.

And during that same period of time, a series of laws have been enacted that have enabled wives to obtain court orders to exclude fathers from the household, in the name of preventing domestic violence. Once a precedent of paternal separation has been established, child custody is almost always awarded to the mother.

Hence, these domestic violence edicts have made it more difficult for fathers to maintain meaningful involvement with their children. In some cases, their own children have come to view their loving fathers with suspicion and distrust.

So noncustodial fathers have become increasingly frustrated and angered by the mixed messages that they are receiving. They find it incomprehensible that their basic human right to be a parent is being curtailed by a legal system that they perceive to be expensive, cloaked in secrecy, and unfair.

Is it any wonder that some fathers crack under the pressure?


1. Centers for Disease Control: Suicide among Older Persons, United States, 1980-1992. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, January 12, 1996.

2. Rogers RG. Marriage, sex, and mortality. J Marriage and the Family 1995; 57: 515-526.

3. Kposowa AJ. Marital status and suicide in the National Longitudinal Mortality Study. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 2000; 54: 254-261.

4. Reported in Farrell W. Father and Child Reunion. New York: Jeremy Tarcher, 2001, p. 259, footnote 13.

5. Calculation:

a. Female crude suicide rate in 1998: 4.4/100,000 (Health, United States, 2000, Table 47)

b. Increased risk of suicide among divorced men, compared to all women: 9.94 times (see reference 4).

c. Suicide rate among divorced men: 4.4/100,000 x 9.94 = 43.7 suicides per 100,000 divorced men

d. Total number of divorced men in the United States in 1998: 8,322,000

(U.S. Census Bureau: Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1999, Table 63)

e. Number of divorced men who committed suicide in 1998: (43.7 x 8,322,000) divided by 100,000 = 3,637

6. Bachu A. Fertility of American Men. Population Division Working Paper No. 14. Washington, DC: Bureau of the Census, March 1996.

7. Calculation: .86 x .5 x .8 = .344 = 34.4%

8. Wallerstein JS, Blakeslee S. Second Chances: Men, Women, and Children a Decade after Divorce. New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1989, p. 235.

9. Umberson D, Williams CL. Divorced fathers: Parental role strain and psychological distress. J Family Issues 1993; 14: 385-378.

10. Ross JM. The Male Paradox. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992, pp. 154-157.>11. Blankenhorn D. Fatherless America: Confronting our Most Urgent Social Problem. New York: HarperPerennial. 1995, p. 161.

12. Divorced fathers snap under pressure. Washington Times November 25, 2002, p. A7.

13. Study: Young white men face higher suicide risk. Indianapolis Star, November 23, 2002,


I cannot take any more, hanged father told agency
By Paul Stokes
(Filed: 20/01/2006)

A father was found hanging from a tree after writing to the Child Support Agency threatening to kill himself unless his payments were reduced.

At the time Peter Phillips, 45, was paying 54 a week from the 230 he earned as a forklift truck driver to his estranged girlfriend towards bringing up their son, an inquest was told.

The Middlesbrough hearing was told that he left a note at his flat in Loftus, near Saltburn, which read: "If you go to the woods today you are sure to find me there. I have had enough, can't take no more."

Mr Phillips had told his mother that he was so much in debt that he could not even afford to buy himself a carton of milk.

Alan Garbutt, a workmate told the inquest that Mr Phillips had told him that he had written to the CSA before his death in July saying he would "do himself in" if his payments were not reduced.

Verdict: suicide.