Something very strange is happening in the world of mental health. For what feels like the first time ever, men are talking about their issues. Originally I typed 'talking about their feelings,' but you know what, that's a cliche. Men are quite capable of talking about their feelings. We've all sat in the pub as one of our mates has professed his love for someone he works with, or a pal has talked about missing his recently departed mum. We can do feelings. Just. What we still struggle with is talking about mental health. The stigma remains. Despite the best efforts of wonderful charities such as CALM, we still find it very difficult to talk about issues like depression. The fella who's in love, we tell him to 'man up' and ask her out. The grieving lad, we give him the time he needs and in our own way he knows that we are there for him. But mental health? We just aren't equipped for that conversation.
We've been raised in a culture where the man is supposed to be the provider. The pre-defined gender roles that have existed forever, seem to continue today and as a result we think that we know our place in society. We are to work. We are to build a family and to provide for them. But what happens if we can't do that? I've suffered with depression since I was a teenager, after a few years I plucked up the courage to say to my dad that I thought I was depressed. His response, 'what have you got to be depressed about?' I didn't mention it again for another 15 years and that was in a doctors surgery after a suicide attempt. When I tell this story I'm always at pains to stress, that response wasn't my dad being callous and over the last few years he's been a wonderful source of support in my battle with mental health, but that's just how it was. That's how it still is for a great many people. I suppose that's the point I'm trying to make really, it's not that men don't talk about this stuff, it's that we simply lack the skills and awareness to do so. If you are raised in a world that tells you that however you are feeling, it is your job every day to get out of bed, get dressed and to go and contribute to society in the exact same way your forefathers did, then how do you adapt when that isn't possible?
When my mental health deteriorated to such a point that I had to stop work, the thing that caused me the most concern was not the sadness that was all consuming, it wasn't the anxiety that stopped me leaving the house for weeks, sometimes months at a time, it wasn't even the suicide attempt that followed. It was the feeling that I was letting people down. The feeling that I wasn't living up to society's expectations of a man. I felt I was bringing shame on my family, that I was letting down my wife. And all of that came about, less because of mental illness and more because of the way masculinity is framed in society.
This is why men struggle to talk about mental health, it's not that we don't want to, it's simply that we don't know how to. To truly break the stigma of mental health, we don't just need to encourage men to talk about their issues, we perhaps need to teach them how to. I wonder if as men we feel we have to have the answers for everything. That every problem is there to be resolved. Because if so, that's an impossible starting point for any conversation on mental health.
Depression, anxiety, PTSD, these aren't problems with immediate answers. They are problems to be explored, to be discussed, to be learned from and to move forward with. Is that a role that men are currently equipped to play?
HuffPost UK is running a month-long focus around men to highlight the pressures they face around identity and to raise awareness of the epidemic of suicide. To address some of the issues at hand, Building Modern Men presents a snapshot of life for men, the difficulty in expressing emotion, the challenges of speaking out, as well as kick starting conversations around male body image, LGBT identity, male friendship and mental health.
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