Our Fathers Are Drowning

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So much of drowning prevention is focused on children, and it should be. Well over six-hundred children under the age of 15 drown in the United States each year and it is a tragedy that deserves the attention of all of us. So visceral is the pain of the loss of a child that the news of these losses affects us and inspires us to act. We can hardly imagine anything worse. But there is one group of people that can imagine something worse and, every year – with painful regularity – they experience it. That group is our children themselves. Pain doesn’t know your age. When a young child loses a parent that too creates a wound that never fully heals.

Each year, about two-thousand adult men drown in the U.S. and eight or nine-hundred of them are fathers of young children. So every year more than two-thousand children survive the drowning death of their dads and have to press on. This reality – that 60% of all drowning deaths are adult males – most of whom have children – seems to have gotten lost in the message. For their children’s sake, at least, we should renew our interest in this otherwise unspoken statistic.

When I’m asked why it is true that adult males drown more than anyone else, the questions come with possible answers: Is it because they can’t swim? Do they take more risks? Is alcohol involved? Are they more likely to try and save others and then fail? My first answer is usually, “Yes – it’s partly all of those things and some others.” But, after years of looking at the data and sadly seeing it mostly flat-lined with no progress, I think the first and best thing we can do as a community to work this problem is to talk about it more.

Trying to fix this by looking at all the causes of adult drowning would be overwhelming. It is too much to handle at once. This is true of childhood drowning as well. It’s the reason we need an “alliance” in the first place. These things have to be addressed on multiple fronts. Some groups work on the safe operation of pools and waterfronts; others on childhood education or courses on parenting. To fix the problem massive problem of adult-male drowning, we’re going to have to do the same. We need to talk about alcohol around water. We need to work on teaching more adults to swim. Men need to learn about aquatic risk. Rip current safety? Of course. But none of that will work if we don’t start by addressing the overarching problem: many men don’t believe they are as vulnerable as they actually are.

Everything I’ve written so far is gleaned easily enough by searching the CDC and Census data. But why it’s happening? I’m sorry, but I have no real data to prove this theory, but I’ve seen it too many times to let the opinion go. We need a campaign that teaches men that their completely capable peers drown all the time and that they can too. They need to hear the stories of capable swimmers succumbing to cold water during early spring swims. They need to recognize that it isn’t about “tough” or “in shape” or even about their concepts of careful around water. Men need to learn that drowning is not just a kid problem. The water doesn’t know your age and does not discriminate. Men need to believe for themselves the drowning is something that can happen to them.

The first part of solving any problem is recognizing one exists. Most of the people who will drown this year will be adult men. As an alliance, we have to talk about this more. We have to work on reaching the fathers of children as well as their moms. We have to talk about the whole problem of drowning. We have to talk about not just the fear of every parent, but the fear of many children as well. If we can get fathers to understand that they too can drown, we might just create more dads who stay around and then teach their children to be safe around the water as well.
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By | 2017-05-18T15:29:49+00:00 March 28th, 2017|NDPA, Water Safety|3 Comments

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  • Wow! Yes. We do have to take this problem seriously and start a conversation (and some serious swim lessons!) about men drowning. The stat only tells half the story.. time to look into why it is happening and what I can do as an aquatic educator! Love this article! Thanks, Mario.

  • Gary S.

    PFDs are part of the answer. No one on my boat leaves the relative safety of the cockpit or flybridge without an inflatable PFD around their neck or waist. When docking or maneuvering in close quarters, when leaning over the side to grab a float, it is all too easy to fall in and hit your head. Thats where an auto-inflate horse collar comes in mighty handy. Why do you think all assistance tow captains are required to wear a PFD? How about the police and marine patrol folks? They can swim, but wearing a PFD whenever there is a danger of going over the side makes sense.