Austerity costs lives. Turn to men’s mental health and you’ll see how.
The shattering regret, heartbreak and tears on thousands of faces. Those are the faces of mothers, fathers, siblings, sons and daughters, who can no longer see those eyes. Those are the eyes of thousands of men below 50, eyes once burning with ambition and pride, only to fade away, falling through the cracks of a broken system – that’s a system made of waiting lists, denials, cries of wolf to deaf ears, and a failure to provide support, a voice, at the critical hours. It was then, every two hours in Britain last year, that a man took his life.
It’s a national tragedy – between 2011 and 2016, a heartbreaking £105 million has been slashed in real terms from England’s mental health budget. Conservative government ministers sat in meetings and drew up this list of priorities, despite the male suicide rate rocketing between 2010 and 2013 at a rate unseen in nearly three decades. “We had to make some tough choices after the mess Lab-” yes we’ve heard the narrative, the fantasy story, enough times. But let’s be clear: Britain’s scandalous current mental health crisis is the result of political decision. Most prominent has been the spiralling inequality since 2010, building a country fit not for the future but for misery, a “punitive, mean-spirited and callous” country fuelled by a devastating belief that community and compassion are for the birds - that’s the UN’s judgement not mine. Of the 5,821 suicides in the UK last year, three quarters were men. Many of those men could still be with us today.
It’s not just about funding, it’s about services targeting the needs of men. It’s when 271 vulnerable people with mental health difficulties pass away after going through NHS services, that we must realise that the current system is simply not grasping the complexity of men’s mental health. Women are more likely to be diagnosed with a mental health condition - so why is it disproportionately men who die by suicide?
At a Sheffield Students’ Union guest lecture last week, campaigner and academic Brendan Stone and sociologist Will Mason were clear: our most vulnerable men desire community, and fall away from it very easily. In Will’s research into men’s mental health, the disappearance of pubs was “lamented”. Pubs are “like a church”, Brendan added, where men can meet, relax and connect. In Sheffield, a city that had its heart ripped out by deindustrialisation, the added impact of austerity and the resulting loss of this social infrastructure has been devastating. But pubs are just one victim of this cruel belief in individualism.
Mass budget cuts since 2010 have hit hardest those local authorities that were already most deprived. They’ve had to carry on funding the ringfenced areas such as child protection, so what gets cut? The early intervention services, like youth centres, community centres, and mental health services. Closed and gone. The spiral is catastrophic, like the 1,000 more pupils excluded from English state schools between 2016 and 2017. With the essential social network of school lost, the lapse into drug abuse, homelessness and violent crime is a well-trodden path. It is at this point when men need those community spaces and services to pick them up and prevent them falling through the net even further. But they’ve disappeared so we, men, are left with the palpable sense of feeling alone, folding into ourselves, with no voice and nobody to listen.
Sometimes careless governance brings out the best in people. Thousands of volunteer mental health groups and projects have sprouted in towns and cities across Britain, filling the cracks of a broken system. With the debate so focused on the national picture, the work of these local projects can be forgotten. Will volunteers at Unity Gym in Sheffield but it is community, not just weights, that fills the space. Trying to tackle the feeling of isolation in Broomhall, a troubled area of the city, the gym finds it better to let men choose how much they want to say, rather than forcing feelings out. The choice is empowering for them.
Then there’s the battle over racialised men’s mental health. The moment violence erupts in Sheffield, a certain stigmatised racial group are plastered across the local tabloid, branded as ‘hoods’ - a label that these young people can all too easily internalise, falling into exclusion and the mental health spiral.
But Will told me it’s these very young people who go along to the community homework club he volunteers at, cracking the stigma, resilient and determined to make a success of themselves. Brendan is involved with Sheffield Flourish, a charity running pioneering social enterprises to tackle mental health at the root - simple things like the ‘Open Door Music Group’, where anyone can come along to jam, be happy, and feel included. Our government has turned its back on the most vulnerable, but these volunteers are inspiring; they’re doing nothing less than saving lives.
Our hollowed out society is full of cracks, and many more young men have needlessly fallen through them since you began reading this. It shouldn’t be down to volunteers to compensate for a careless, despicable neglect of mental health among the people running this country. But we must recognise and respect these incredible groups in our campaign to end this national tragedy. Our efforts must outlast Movember, because no longer can Britain let the burning eyes of its young men fade.