As a trainee mental health social worker, I work with some of the most severely unwell people in the heart of the capital. The people who are referred to my community mental health team experience mental health issues such as paranoid schizophrenia, bipolar affective disorder, and more; many of them are (or were) professionals, and many of them have a history of attempted suicide, or suicidal thoughts.
Suicide is the single biggest killer of men under the age of 45 – more than cancer, heart attacks, or violent crime. My colleagues and I work with a wide range of people, of all ages, backgrounds, sexualities, and genders, but something I’ve always been interested in is how societal norms and pressures, and masculinity – toxic masculinity in particular – affect men and impact their mental health. Although suicide attempts in men and women occur at approximately the same rate, men are more likely to die from their attempts as they use more violent methods.
Men commit almost 80% of violent crimes – but are also the biggest victims of violent crimes (from other men). I believe this is because men are made to feel that violence and aggression are normal. Men also have higher rates of substance abuse, and homelessness. They are less likely to access mental health services, and usually do at a much more severe stage of their illness. These are the effects of a patriarchal, male-dominated society that, on the one hand, benefits and privileges men – for example with the gender pay gap, and more men being in positions of power – but on the other hand hurts them and others around them.
“My role is challenging, but it’s also incredibly rewarding, and I think it’s vital that our profession reflects the people it helps.”
Society has yet to really carve out or accept a role for men beyond what they can financially contribute. Social isolation, social disconnectedness and feeling like a burden are also significant contributing factors; research shows that men isolate themselves more, and have weaker support networks. These factors can also exacerbate mental health problems.
Social workers are incredibly valuable in mental health because we take a holistic view of each person we work with. Rather than looking at someone through the lens of their diagnosis, we look at the social issues that impact their mental health, what their skills and aspirations are, what they are passionate about, and what they can contribute to society. In essence, what tools they have that can help them to lead a fulfilled and meaningful life.
More men need to consider mental health social work as a career; we are underrepresented not only in this role – only 19% of social workers in adult services in England are men – but also within care roles generally, which are often seen as the duty of, or more naturally suited to, women. My role is challenging, but it’s also incredibly rewarding, and I think it’s vital that our profession reflects the people it helps.
“We need to address the wider societal issues that are causing men to feel disconnected, to face pressure to behave a certain way, and avoid seeking support”
There is a lot to be done beyond mental health services too. We need to provide early intervention and education; whether that’s within schools or in our families and friendship circles, reaching out to each other, providing open and safe spaces where these difficult conversations can be held and expression can be encouraged. And we need to normalise seeking professional help.
This is why I wrote Mask Off: Masculinity Redefined. I found that a lot of my male friends and I were going through the same things; aloneness, not having anyone to talk to, and isolation. I realised that there must be a way to bring these issues to the forefront and have these conversations collectively, in a way that is easily accessible – and that maybe, if we had been made aware of these issues sooner, we would have been more adequately equipped to deal with them.
We can keep working towards improving mental health services – and we should always be doing that as there is so much that needs to be done. But it’s not enough on its own. We need to address the wider societal issues that are causing men to feel disconnected, to face pressure to behave a certain way, and avoid seeking support. I was one of those men who was carrying a burden in myself and thinking that I didn’t need help. But I got the support that I needed and now I work to give it to others.
Things can change, and they need to.
JJ Bola is training to be a mental health social worker through the Think Ahead programme. He is also a writer and poet – his latest book is Mask Off: Masculinity Redefined.