Why are men’s voices and services ignored in the new men’s health policy?

Separated Dads Left Out of Men’s Health Strategy

The health sector should acknowledge the needs of separated dads, writes CEO of Parents Beyond Breakup, Pete Nicholls.

Fatherhood is one of the key life experiences that shapes men’s health. In general, being a dad is good for our health, but being a “dad in distress” can put men’s health at risk. Knowing this, I was disappointed to learn that the new National Men’s Health Strategy places so little focus on the importance of fatherhood.

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As CEO of Parents Beyond Breakup, I encounter the impact that relationship breakdown has on parents, families and children on a daily basis.

According the World Health Organisation, involved dads “live longer, have less physical and mental health problems, are less likely to consume alcohol and drugs, are more productive at work, have fewer accidents, are more likely to be satisfied with their lives and are more emotionally connected to their partners and children”.

As fatherhood promotes good health in men, the barriers to being a dad are also barriers to good health. One of the key barriers that prevents men from being involved fathers is family separation.

Suicide Is A Major Risk Factor

There are around one million children living in separated families in Australia. At least 80% of these children live mostly with their mums and 50% spend little or no time with their dads. We also know that half of separated dads experience thoughts of suicidality post separation and more than 10 male suicides a week are linked to relationship separation

According to the Australian Institute of Family Studies, the four main barriers to separated fathers being more involved in their children’s lives are as follows:

  • 1 in 2 say the demands of work is a key barrier
  • 1 in 3 say the child’s mother is a key barrier
  • 1 in 3 say distance / cost of travel is a key barrier
  • 1 in 6 say a court-ordered arrangement is a key barrier

The 2010 Male Health Policy recognized that relationship breakdown was a significant transition point in men’s lives and identified the need for various partners to take action to identify separated men (including separated dads) who were vulnerable to depression and risk behaviours such as excessive drinking, smoking, self-harm or poor self-care.

The new 2020-2030 makes no such acknowledgment.

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A History Of Inaction

On one level, nothing has really changed. It’s difficult to point to any specific actions that took place for separated dads as a result of the 2010 Male Health Policy. There was funding to promote the role of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander fathers in the first three years of the policy, but no sustained focus on fathers in general or separated dads in particular.

It could be argued that the Men’s Health Strategy is not the best place to address the issues that separated dads face. But the reality is, the Government hasn’t created any other strategy, policy or framework to support separated dads.

So even though we knew the relationships between men’s health and separated dads was on the rocks, opening up the new Men’s Health Strategy and realizing separated dads had been kicked out, made me feel like a dad returning home from work to find his partner had changed the locks!

So is it really over? Should we start seeing other strategies or can we still save the relationship for the sake of the children?

I think we can and more importantly I think we should which is why I’ve outlined 5 ways the strategy could focus on separated dads.

Men’s Health Strategy: 5 Ways To Help Dads In Distress

Pete Nicholls of Parents Beyond Breakup, outlines five ways he’s like to see the National Men’s Health Strategy support separated fathers.

As CEO of Parents Beyond Breakup, I was disappointed to discover that the National Men’s Health Strategy doesn’t focus on the needs of separated dads.

In 2019, our Dads In Distress Support groups will be celebrating their 20th year. We currently have 16 weekly groups meeting all over the country, run by trained volunteers and supported by a national telephone helpline and online support.

Our peer support groups give separated dads social connection, emotional support and practical guidance to help navigate the distressing world of family breakdown. We cannot fix the issues that separated fathers experience, but we can and do build their personal resilience and empower them to find optimal ways to deal with their challenging circumstances.

Doing so very effectively takes the risk of suicide off the table which, when you consider that over 50% of separated dads feel suicidal, is no small achievement. We are proud to say that we help keep dads alive and in their kids’ lives.

Involved fatherhood is not only good for the health of fathers and sons (making it a men’s health issues), is also good for the health and wellbeing of mums and daughters.

With this in mind, here’s my wish list of five things I want to see included in the National Men’s Health Strategy.

1. Target Blokes In Distress

The Strategy has lots of ways of identifying specific groups of men to target. There are life stages like adulthood and health conditions like testicular and prostate cancer and priority groups like males who identify as gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex. What’s missing is a focus on the broader context of men’s lives and in particular, the distressing life experiences that can impact men’s lives and health. We want to see the Strategy targeting support at “men at distress” as a priority group, including separated dads.

2. Form Best Practice

We were pleased to see the new Men’s Health Strategy place a strong focus on:

Male-centred approaches to services and programs
Best practice approaches to men’s health and wellbeing
Training for health professionals on working with men
As we have 20 years’ experience of a taking a male-centred approach to working with men, we invite everyone involved in men’s health to reach out and learn from our best practice approaches.

3. Give Separated Dads A Voice

The new Men’s Health Strategy places a strong focus on engaging with men as health consumers but, unlike the Women’s Health Strategy, doesn’t recognize the importance of giving men a voice and listening to their lived experiences.

We have been providing a safe space for separated dads to share their experiences for 20 years. If the commitment to “embed active, meaningful, non-tokenistic engagement of men” in the Strategy is genuine, then we can help.

For this to happen, the Strategy needs to acknowledge that men are much more than health consumers, they have lived experiences that health providers can learn from if they are prepared to listen and give men a voice.

4. Invite Advocates For Separated Dads To The Party

We are pleased to see that the new Men’s Health Strategy commits to a governance structure and a national men’s health research strategy. We are concerned, however, that fatherhood in general and the experiences of separated dads in particular, will be overlooked.

We note that the Strategy states that “advocacy’ is one role that NGOs play as partners helping to implement the Strategy. However, we also note that NGOs that work with and advocate for separated dads have not been invited to the table.

We are happy play our role, sharing best practice and advocating for the needs of separated dads, but we need to be invited to the table to do this.

5. Pull Down The Barriers To Good Health

It’s great to see the Men’s Health Strategy recognize the need to address the systemic and structural barriers to men’s health. Involved fatherhood promotes good health in men and so the barriers to involved fatherhood are also barriers to good health.

For separated dads, we know that work, money, transport, housing, the family court system and an unsupportive relationship with the child’s mum, are all barriers to separated dads enjoying the health benefits of involved fatherhood.

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