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 their children.
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 Australian 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 reports that the suicide rate for men aged 20 to 39 years has risen by 70 percent over the last two decades.
Statistics 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 old.
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 "marriage breakdown."
"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 be frivolous.
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 as well.
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 issues.
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 in Canada.