The Untold Story of Relationship Breakdown in Australia – Discussion Paper

Prompting article

Families are not all married – so who tells the bigger story when legal divorce is not involved?

Absolute numbers of Australian divorces over the past two years tells only one part of the story. Whilst it paints a clear picture of legal marriage breakdown it does not tell the complete story.

According to ABS data, in June 2021, there were 7.3 million families in Australia, an increase of 1 million (16.6%) since June 2011. (A family is defined as two related people who live in the same household.  This includes couples with and without children, including same-sex couples, couples with dependents, single mothers or fathers with children, and siblings living together.)

Of these, 1.1 million (15.0%) were one-parent families with 79.8% of these being single mothers.

Of these one-parent families, 59.5% (651,700) had dependents.

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Conservatively there are 600k families with children living with one parent, with no data to support whether or not they have access to their other parent. Importantly, that the ‘other’ parent is not listed as a single parent, we can perhaps safely assume, to a significant degree, they do not have access. That certainly would be our all-too-common experience.

Currently no ABS statistics include the number of Australian children having to negotiate family breakdown, or those who have to negotiate new living arrangements, lack of access to a loved parent.

Suicide Statistics

In 2020, 3139 Australians died by suicide, ¾ of those were men.  Again, that doesn’t tell the whole story – there were 65, 000 suicide attempts during that same year, the majority of those were women, who fortunately took less lethal means to attempt to self-harm.  What we need to consider is how to support our Australian men and women.

PBB’s focus is on saving more lives – we know that all the statistics are showing us that whilst both men and women are in distress, there are some areas where particular focus is needed. Our women need more support to stop self-harm, and our men need more support to stop their lethal means of self-harm.  Where do we decide to focus our efforts?

There are multiple supports for women, both here and internationally. However, there are limited resources supporting men in distress, hence our ongoing focus on being the only support for Dads in Distress. That we are aware, we are the only wide-scale such support for these men, here or abroad, which makes us a little unique and something of an Aussie success.

Covid Impact

The impact of Covid and other similar natural disasters has a long lead-time on resulting mental health, specifically situational distress related to practical challenges arising from the disaster in question.  We expect to see the impact 2 to 3 years after major catastrophic events.  Whilst PBB cannot quantify actual statistics relating to this we can observe increased demand for our services which has, of late, been unprecedented in our 22-year history.

ABS recorded divorces do not tell the entire story as many families in Australia are not legally ‘married’.  Many families are de facto meaning that their stories do not get captured when we look at traditional divorce stats alone.  The breakdown of families in a wider context, is an untold story, with many more children living through family breakdown than is suggested by divorce statistics alone.

These are the stories that PBB can attest to, through testimonials from parents in distress, through increased demand for our support services, which are the only services particularly targeting and supporting separating families. In many ways, we are the only clear witness to what is happening in reality, not least following the impact of disaster.

Supporting Parents

Parents Beyond Breakup is the only national suicide prevention charity focussed solely on supporting separating parents, currently 85% of our clients are Dads in Distress, 10% are Mums in Distress – a percentage which is growing, and 5% are Grandparents seeking support.  These parents and grandparents are at very high risk of suicide if they are not able to separate and make parenting arrangements amicable; a common problem most Australians will recognise. It is probably fair to say that most of us know someone that has had a difficult family breakdown and a fight over access to kids and familial equity.

Traditionally the custodial parent granted by the Family Law Court is the mother, (reference ABS figures of 1.1million single parent families, with 79.8% being single mothers) hence the distress of our clients being focussed on fathers.  However, that also brings additional societal shame to the Mums we support, where they are not the custodial parent, and the negative impact on their mental health as a result. Ironically, in being part of the more common group, men will more easily find peers in the same boat as them. Not so for mums who face the additional burden of ‘no smoke without fire’ so she ‘must have done something pretty bad to lose her kids’. We know that’s not true, but it doesn’t change the fact for our mums and dads.

 Clarifying the need:

Parents Beyond Breakup’s statistics over the past 24 months demonstrate significant trauma that separating parents are experiencing through the impact of Covid-19.  Impacts due to lockdowns include the inability to access children including moving interstate and more recently even moving between suburbs, slowdown in the judicial system as courts shut down and family law cases are delayed, finalisation of parenting arrangements has had a significant impact, and multiple calls from fathers in distress, with their children in their cars, where they were victims of domestic violence; yes, men are abused, it is just not reported as frequently, if at all.  Unable to access crisis services and accommodation as men’s shelters (typically designed only to be halfway house for released prisoners or those with serious substance abuse issues) do not accept children, we have had a distressing number of calls from fathers with their children with them unable to access crisis accommodation.  Sleeping in their cars with their children, under bridge passovers as no shelters will receive them.

Dramatic Increase:

There has been a dramatic increase in the numbers of separated parents seeking support over the past 24 months:

    • Comparing July 2020 to June 2022, there has been a 175% increase in demand for online peer support specifically for fathers in distress, impacted by an inability to meet in In Person Support Groups.  As a result, we now run online support groups nationally 5 days a week. Most recent figures demonstrate that additional times and groups need to be established as 20+ attendees at a peer support group is fast becoming unmanageable. Optimal numbers are 12 – 15 in each group.  Prior to Covid pandemic all our groups were face to face. However, ongoing Covid issues and regular lockdowns means we need to find alternative means to support those most in distress.
    • Over that same period, we are seeing a 56% increase in callers to our Suicide Prevention helpline, we are not currently funded for a 24/7 service, we operate 6 days a week, and recent sponsors have assisted in putting more helpline operators on the phones two days a week to manage the call volumes.  We know that with a 24/7 service we would be able to support more parents requiring urgent lifesaving support. If you are that dad sleeping in the car with his kids and you’ve just found our helpline, imagine the feeling of calling and finding there’s no one there to take your call at night?
    • Even with the Covid lockdowns and having to close all our face-to-face Peer Support Groups, as we reopen progressively, in line with various state Covid mandates, we are seeing a 20% increase in demand to attend these groups, which is regularly challenged with Covid impacts and lockdowns and various Covid vaccination mandates in place which prevent unvaccinated parents from attending. Our face-to-face groups have also been impacted by the recent flooding events across NSW particularly – our group venues have been completely flooded which adds to the distress of parents needing support.
    • Our team is stretched to the limit in supporting parents in distress – and we are seeing increased levels of mental health issues versus our more traditionally managed ‘Situational Distress’.

Situational Distress vs Mental Health

The majority of parents accessing our services do not have ongoing Mental Health issues but are impacted by Situational Distress (otherwise also known as ‘adjustment disorder’) through loss of access to their children, loss of access to their normal social networks, financial stressors through loss of family home, living the perfect storm of loss, isolation and lack of hope. In many ways, total loss of access to children is much like a bereavement with a twist – they are alive, but you have no closure or hope of getting access.

Everyday Mums and Dads suddenly lose their daily access to their children, lose their social networks, lose their reputation and ‘purpose’ as a parent, become financially distressed, lose their access to their family home, what is left? Each one of these factors alone is a pre-cursor to a potential suicide yet family breakdown with kids, is the one life event in which all occur together, sometimes unexpected and there is precious little, if any, support for many that come to us.

Imagine in an instant losing your home, partner, children, access to finances, receiving a domestic violence restraining order (later removed due to being baseless), and then, finding there is nowhere to go for help other than friends if they’ll take you or the GP and a mental health plan – where is the practical help that’s so needed.

We are seeing increased levels of high distress as the lag effect of Covid takes hold.

  • Over the last 24m we have seen a 110% increase in access to our support services because of the impact of Covid related family breakdown.
  • Family breakdown and associated components thereof (e.g., legal issues, financial stressors, divorce, child access issues) sit amongst the most common factors in Australian suicides for both men and women, particularly for men.
  • In both sexes, we see significant levels of suicide linked to:
    • Disruption of family by separation and divorce
    • Problem in relationship with spouse or partner
    • Problem in legal circumstances (commonly family breakdown related)
    • Disappearance of a family member (inc. loss of access to children)
    • Housing and economic circumstances (60%+ homelessness caused by family breakdown)
    • Absence of family member

Arguably, family breakdown and not divorce alone (a singular symptom amongst many others), is the bigger, more serious and less understood problem facing Australia as a result of Covid and its ongoing impact.

PBB Impact:

The impact PBB has on client distress and suicidality is demonstrated through client self-reported ratings between first and second (and further) interactions with Peer Support Groups. There is a significant change between a client’s first and second interactions with our Peer Support Group support service; demonstrating that their self-reported levels of suicidality decrease by 78%, isolation by 47% and hopelessness by 27% after an average of attending two meetings. This data is validated and reviewed weekly based on each client interacting with us and their self-reported outcomes.

As a result of the rapid increase in family breakdown since mid 2020, PBB will be holding its first of what is hoped to be an annual online conference looking to raise awareness of the support around the phenomena so closely linked to suicide. Being run on 12th October 2022, Parental Alienation Awareness Day in Australia and New Zealand.

Other key factors to consider:

  1. Recessions cause increase in separation (i.e., financial ‘situational’ stress)
  2. Early access to PBB (Dads in distress, Mums in distress) is effective (and we have data sets with outcomes data) at reducing suicidality and encouraging Australians to seek support early rather than wait until they reach crisis.