I'm no stranger to talking about my mental health. I've experienced depression and anxiety periodically throughout my twenties: my first encounter with it was during my second year at university, and it has reared its ugly head periodically since then, turning up at awkwardly like an uninvited party guest.
I'm also familiar with what it feels like to experience stigma. The first time I went to talk to my GP about the persistent anxiety I was experiencing, he suggested that I have a stiff drink and relax. I was surprised by this suggestion, not least because I was, and still am, teetotal. I brushed off the comment because, although it was probably for the best, the stiff drink wasn't a coping strategy available to me. It wasn't until later that I started to grasp that my GP's suggestion was part of the insidious way we encourage men to deal with their mental health. We're supposed to bottle it up; our problems are not the business of others. I reached out for help with a problem, and I was told, in so many words, that I should keep it inside, deal with it on my own.
Happily, after that encounter I realised that talking about my mental health would be crucial to surviving: I was lucky that the first friend I confided in was supportive, understanding, and not judgemental. I've built a good support network with people who have had similar experiences, and have gradually become more comfortable telling the story of my experiences of mental illness. I've managed, largely, to keep my distance from people who have outdated or judgemental views.
But when I realised that it was Men's Health Week this week, I started thinking about how talking about my mental health intersects with my gender. And I realised one important thing: nearly all the people I talk to about mental health are women. I'm happy to share my experience with friends, colleagues, other mental health campaigners, as long as they're female.
But not the men in my life: I shy away from talking about it with my straight-laced (yet immensely kind) dad, my brother, who I've always seen as being more 'manly'. I don't talk about it with the group of my school friends, one of whom dropped into conversation that he'd had a panic attack last year -- a topic from which the group moved swiftly on. I'm more comfortable talking about my mental health in public, in front of a room full of strangers, than I am with most of the men I know.
Among my male friends, none of us really talk about it, even though I know that (at least) a few of us have had periods of poor mental health. I don't really know why that is, to be honest. Maybe it's because our friendship was born in the crucible of teenage school years, where we were preoccupied by football, exams and house parties, before we really knew what mental health was and before we'd figured out how to talk about our feelings. Maybe it's because in groups like that, people can sometimes be given labels that are hard to shake, and no-one wants to be 'the one with the mental health problem'. Maybe it's because we're worried that we'll be considered less of a man if we open up about the way that we're feeling.
But with the men I know, I'm confident that the problem isn't bigotry: it's silence. Apart from the odd misuse of words like 'mental' and 'crazy', I don't think many of them hold any false, negative beliefs about mental health problems. But silence is still a barrier: it's a barrier to seeking help, and it's a barrier to those of us who do experience poor mental health to feel comfortable and accepted. My new mission, then, is to break that silence down. To talk to more men about mental health, to ask them with sincerity how they're doing, and to be more honest about what I'm going through. Talking seems like an insignificant thing, but given that suicide is the leading cause of death for men my ages, it's really a matter of huge significance.
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