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The Sports World Knows the Most Important Muscle in Men Is Between Their Ears

13/11/2015 17:16 GMT | Updated 13/11/2016 10:12 GMT

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HuffPost UK is running a month-long focus around masculinity in the 21st Century, and the pressures men face around identity. To address some of the issues at hand, Building Modern Men presents a snapshot of life for men, from bringing up young boys to the importance of mentors, the challenges between speaking out and 'manning up' as well as a look at male violence, body image, LGBT identity, lad culture, sports, male friendship and mental illness.

Okay men, if I say the names Sam Allardyce, Alan Pardew and Gordon Strachan, what image comes to mind? Is it Big Sam violently chewing gum as he watches his current team, Sunderland, fend off another attack? Or Pardew rushing from his technical area to lay into the poor fourth official over a decision that didn't go Crystal Palace's way? Or Scotland manager Gordon Strachan, leaping in fury from his manager's perch a few steps up from the Hampden Park pitch, and charging down to remonstrate with a player, an opponent or an official who has displeased him?

For sure, if I ask the direct question 'what do these three men have in common?', the first part is easy - they are all former footballers turned managers, and as such they are all very high profile, very well paid, and very good at taking care of themselves in a very macho world.

But may I add another layer to the profile of all three please? They were all among the first signatories to the recent cross party campaign I launched with former Lib Dem health minister and former Tory Cabinet minister Andrew Mitchell, Equality4MentalHealth.

It was a long list, 200 or so names from politics, the Church (the Archbishop of Canterbury no less), business, academia, arts and literature; in other words the usual staple of names in fields which can usually be persuaded to sign up to a campaign or two. But I was very keen that sport, and in particular football, should be in there too. You do not have to be the football obsessive that I am to know that the game has a reach and an appeal among young men that means some will be likelier to listen to a football leader than some of the other leaders we had gathered together. For the same reason, we were pleased to get the support of the League Managers' Association, top cricketers, and also a host of great names from the even tougher environment of professional rugby league.

But what was interesting to me about Allardyce, Pardew and Strachan was not just that they wanted to sign up, but that they knew and thought so much about the issues. Similarly, what was interesting when I was researching for my book, Winners And How They Succeed, was to see clearly that sport is so far ahead of business and politics when it comes to recognizing that just as the body needs looking after, so does the mind.

The irony of course is that sport is predominantly physical, in that athletes have to be supremely fit, agile and often able to endure pain and discomfort. Yet coaches recognize more and more that the most important muscle, to quote Iron Man world champion Guy Leech, is 'the one between your ears.'

So in elite sport, for many coaches and athletes it is now routine to have proper professional support, psychological and psychiatric, to get the best out of the mind; but in business and politics, where the work is much less physical and more evidently requiring of intellectual prowess, such support would be seen as a weakness, something not to admit to, and therefore not to have.

This of course is how stigma develops, and with often catastrophic consequences. It is rare, though not unheard of, for men to take their own lives on account of a physical illness alone. Pain can usually be relieved to a great extent. A treatment plan, even of serious physical illness, can often give hope. But for mental illness, it's different. There is no morphine for madness. There are pills that might help with depression, but they take time to kick in and it can take forever to find the right one, that works for you. And then add in centuries of cultural failure on the issue, which makes men feel they should 'suffer in silence,' or 'keep a stiff upper lip,' or 'pull yourself together man,' and the pressures are all to avoid seeking out help in the first place.

Suffering in silence has the consequence of suffering alone, which merely adds to the suffering and the sense of isolation. And how can anyone be expected to find the balm for a pain they cannot explain because there is nobody to explain to, because you shouldn't have the feeling in the first place, and if you do you certainly shouldn't talk about it? And down that route, for some, lies suicide, the only way finally to end the pain.

It is a fact we would prefer to turn our eyes from... suicide the biggest killer of men aged under 35. In Britain. A civilized, well-developed country with many compassionate people, one of the world's biggest economies, the NHS... can we truly call ourselves civilized when so many want to end their own lives rather than wake up to another morning of pain and isolation?

If any other killer, of a physical nature, was taking so many lives of our young men, governments and policy makers would act because we the public would make clear our demands that they act. And this is where stigma has implications not just for individuals but for major decisions on how resources are spent.

We launched Equality4MentalHealth last week specifically to target Chancellor George Osborne in the run up to the government spending review. To highlight, in an NHS whose constitution commits the service to parity between physical and mental health, that we are far away from that. You can read the full case we make at Equality4MentalHealth.UK and please add your name to the 16,000 plus who have joined us so far.

Just imagine you are the Chancellor, or you are a team of NHS Commissioners, and you are allocating resources to different priority areas. Let's say there is a choice to be made between cancer care, children's services, A and E, and mental health... which do you think would be front of queue for cuts? You'd be right, mental health, and for all the warm words from David Cameron when he welcomed our campaign in Parliament, those cuts are happening piecemeal around the country. And unless Chancellor Osborne announces that he is matching the verbal commitment to equality with the earmarking of investment for better mental health services, we are storing up bigger - and more expensive - problems for ourselves in the future.

The good news is that awareness and understanding is improving. The bad news is that as we encourage more and more people to be open about problems they may have, those problems can be exacerbated when they realize the services don't exist to help them.

We will only win the fight for those services if we win the argument that there are savings to be made from a new approach. That a country of strong, healthy minds is going to be a stronger, healthier country; just as a team of strong, healthy minds and bodies is going to be a stronger team; if sport can get it, surely politics can too?

Alastair Campbell is co-founder of #Equality4MentalHealth and an ambassador for Time to Change

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