January 29, 2002 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
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
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
that the suicide rate for men aged 20 to 39 years has risen by 70 percent
over the last two decades.
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
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
"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
— 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
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
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
For example, the National Organization for Women showed no reluctance
in championing the mentally disturbed Andrea Yates who killed her five
children — 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 — 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