When I was eight years old, my father stood with his hand upon my shoulder. He told me that I might never see him again and that now I must take care of my mother and little brother. I felt as if my spirit had been broken.
Even though my family were safely reunited nine months later, the intense stress and trauma of the experience turned us all into quite different people. My unresolved anxiety leaked out, manifesting as obsessive-compulsive disorder, body dysmorphia, eating disorders, and dyscalculia (severe difficulties with numbers). I obsessively pulled out my hair and gouged at my skin, and developed spontaneous tics and grunts. I thought about suicide: that I would be one less mouth to feed.
I'm over all of those problems, now but I didn't get over them by isolating myself. I had to identify and accept my issues, and then talk with people to help me turn my life around.
BBC3 Online has recently released a powerful four minute documentary called "It's Tough Being A Man". It's about male depression and how men tend to stay silent about their feelings. I was happy to be one of the men filmed for this documentary because I strongly support the message that we need to change the culture of secrecy and shame that exists around men's mental health issues.
Recently, the Duchess of Cambridge edited articles for the Huffington Post about children dealing with trauma. She said:
"What I did not expect was to see that time and time again, the issues that led people to addiction and destructive decision making seemed to almost always stem from unresolved childhood challenges. It became clear to me that many children have to deal with complex problems without the emotional resilience , language or confidence to ask for help."
While it's commendable that awareness and attention are being directed to childhood mental health issues, space must also be made for grown men to unpack and integrate our shadows - to accept our pasts and enjoy healthy relationships - with ourselves and one another.
The BBC3 documentary reminds us that:
- The biggest killer of men under 45 is suicide
- One in four British men have thought of taking their own lives
- Over 40% of men suffer in silence, never sharing their feelings
- Men are three times more likely to be dependent on alcohol
- 800,000 men become victims of domestic violence every year
- One in eight men have no close friends
- As few as 4% of male victims of sexual abuse report it to the police
- Every day, 13 men take their own lives
Last month, International Women's Day put a spotlight on how gender stereotyping can negatively affect women. What is less often discussed is how traditional gender roles negatively impact on men.
Most men simply don't have the tools or sensitivity to respond when one of their mates talks about his fears or inner feelings. They'll typically crack a joke to keep things safe, brush it off with a "don't worry mate, have another drink...", or change the subject to sex or sport.
Men can become isolated and unsatisfied for many reasons, because for example:
- They mistrust other men - having felt safer with females since a very young age
- They get lost in workaholism - the respectable addiction
- They become obsessed with avoiding criticism or abandonment
- They hide behind the needs of their children
- They actually win the rat race and cross everything off their 'to have' lists yet they still feel empty inside - unconsciously living a blur, adrift without a paddle, a purpose, or pals
- Many take male relationships for granted, to suddenly find that there is no one around to chew the fat with
Many men's relationships with their friends are so shallow that they only realise that a friend was going through similar feelings when that friend returns from the psychiatric ward, or when he attends his mate's funeral.
"Man up and pull yourself together!" to a man who is struggling with his life is as ridiculous as "Just grow it back!" to an amputee. It takes more than that. Every time I've taken part in a conference, festival, debate or documentary, the conclusion that has been reached is that "men just need to talk about it". Talking about it is an important first step on the path to creating a more enjoyable and fulfilling life for yourself. Last November, at the Southbank's 'Being A Man' festival where I spoke about my suicidal tendencies, the consensus was, once again, that men simply need to speak more.
But what if there's no one they feel they can speak with? Or they don't know how to speak about it? Where do men go when they have outgrown a life of survival and it's time to bite the bullet, get connected and live life to the fullest?
This is where men's groups come in. Men's groups provide a safe, non-judgemental, authentic space in which men can show up and share their true feelings without being ridiculed or rejected. Men's groups have been springing up all over the UK - indeed, globally - these past few years.
I've been running my own men's groups for almost fifteen years now and the most sacred and unspeakable stories have been shared without shame, freeing men of burdens that often they've carried for most of their lives. We explore the depths of our psyches, the challenges of daily life, and laugh ourselves sane.
One of the things I enjoy most about men's groups is seeing how a group of men of diverse age, wealth, class, creed, sexuality and emotional awareness can so easily come together to support each other, when in their day-to-day lives they can be quite competitive. The men who show up are simply ready for the next stage in their journeys of growing into conscious, authentic men, ready to take part in a better life, in the company of other good men.
'Newsweek' released the book 'The Descent of Men, Investigating Male Suicide' last year, which shared similarly sobering statistics as the BBC3 documentary. The book also reaches the conclusion that men need most of all to speak with one another.
One of the chapters in the book is called "The Man Whisperer," and it's about the men's groups that I run. In it I explain what men's groups are and briefly describe how to run a men's group. I believe that we need to create a lot more groups, so that men can easily find a place where they feel safe to speak about their issues without feeling judged. That's why, in my response blog to the chapter I provide the structure, ground rules, opening questions, and the thinking behind men's groups, for everyone to freely use. I hope resources like this will inspire more men to create their own men's groups.
So if the question is "What can men do to ease their pain and isolation," the wrong answer is, "Man up! Grow a pair!" The right answer is "Man up... by having the good sense to talk about it."
If you'd like to experience a live or online men's group, or you'd like to learn how to run a men's group (facilitator trainings and ebook coming up) please visit my website www.kennydcruz.com or subscribe to my newsletter.