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Reddit is a haven for “men’s rights activists,” incels, and general he-man woman-haters, though you can curate your feed to mostly avoid that these days, if you stick to the better subreddits and, you know, don’t read the comments. But if you just keep the default front page, you might be surprised at how often misogynist talking points show up. This week, I noticed a bit of MRA propaganda that hit the top of the default subreddit r/pics and I wanted to talk about it, because this is how false information spreads these days. It seems innocuous enough, and even sweet and worthy of sharing, but it’s a lie. It’s actually several lies, efficiently packed into one photo of one sign with one sentence on it.
Here it is: a photo of a man holding a sign that says, “every week 21 fathers take their own life due to child access issues :(“. This is the sort of thing you hear often amongst men who claim to be advocating for “men’s rights” and “father’s rights,” so let’s talk about it.
First of all, let’s dispense with the idea that 21 fathers commit suicide because of “child access issues,” or for any other reason. This figure comes from a blurb uttered by Steve Dickson at a political event in September of 2017. Dickson is a member of the One Nation party, which is a white nationalist party in Australia that is mostly concerned with stopping immigration and “anti-white” bias. Dickson himself is a bit notorious for claiming that Queensland schools were “having little kids in grade four at school, young girls being taught by teachers how to masturbate, how to strap on dildos.” He apologized later but stood by his “dildo” comment. Sure, Steve.
So yeah, at that same event where he claimed that little girls in fourth grade were learning how to strap on dildos, he also announced that “there are up to 21 fathers killing themselves every week in (Australia).” He gave no citation for this, and no one has ever been able to find one, just like his comment about little girls learning how to use strap-ons. The context for the made-up suicide statistic is that he was defending One Nation’s policy of allowing a father to have access to their children even when the mother has received an order of protection because the father has threatened her with violence.
Dickson lost his bid for that seat, but he’s still the leader of the One Nation party in Queensland.
Even though Dickson had absolutely no reason to give that figure of 21 fathers killing themselves, The Conversation tried their best to break down the actual stats and found that in 2016 there were an average of 41 male suicides in Australia each week, but there is no data on how many of those were fathers who weren’t allowed to see their children. It simply doesn’t exist since it’s not collected by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
We have a bit more data in the United States, where, like in Australia, we do have a problem with men (in general) committing suicide — particularly middle aged men. And research shows that divorced men are particularly at risk of suicide, as well as at risk of many other illnesses due in part to them no longer taking care of themselves by going to the doctor or eating well. The depression can be a very real problem, and researchers suspect that it can be exacerbated by bitterness not just toward their ex-spouse but also toward “the system.”
And that’s what this viral photo is: bitterness toward “the system” that supposedly keeps men away from their children.
But does the system keep men away from their children? The research says absolutely not, at least here in the United States. More than half the time, fathers don’t even ask for custody. When they do, the cases that end up in court are vanishingly small: only about 5% of all custody cases are decided by a court. And in those cases, the gender of the parent isn’t significant according to research like an in-depth meta-analysis from 2013, which found that the most important factors in gaining custody were mental stability, criminal history, and financial resources. They did find that in some cases fathers (but not mothers) were less likely to get sole custody if they were poor, but mothers (and not fathers) were less likely to get custody if they had ever been hospitalized for a psychiatric condition.
One of their most interesting findings was that “the rates of maternal custody decreased and the rates of paternal sole custody increased” after the courts made their final decision. In fact, mothers who refused to work with the fathers on custody prior to going to court were more likely to have their custody revoked.
So to conclude, most fathers don’t want custody, and when they do pursue custody to the point that it ends up in court, they stand a very good chance of getting it, especially if the mother tried to keep the child away from the father.
So no, 21 fathers do not kill themselves each week over “child access issues,” and in general there are no child access issues exclusive to fathers. When a relationship ends, there’s a chance for it to be destructive to either gender, and mothers and fathers can end up without the custody arrangement they want.
Like many of the things I debunk here, this image makes life worse for people in a number of ways. Most notably, it is false information that feeds into the very thing that research shows us does lead to male suicide after a divorce: bitterness at “the system.” Men need to know that “the system” isn’t out to get them. Is it perfect? Obviously not — men shouldn’t be denied custody based on their financial holdings, just as women shouldn’t be denied custody based on past mental health problems. But the key is to work within the system we have to better it, and to let depressed people know that there is hope.
If you’re depressed and considering suicide, please know that there is another way. There is always another way. In the US you can call 1-800-273-8255 any time of day and talk to someone who cares.
And for god’s sake, don’t believe everything you see on Reddit.