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#022 - Men's Health Awareness Month - Mental Health

Mental health issues affect all of us differently, but the one thing that seems to be true across the board is that they can affect all of us. Anyone might find themselves suffering from mental illness, and for that very reason alone it's vitally important that we don't judge or blame people for things that may be beyond their control and understanding. That's not to say we should excuse negative behaviors in those afflicted by mental health problems, but we shouldn't make them feel that there is something inherently wrong with them due to things that, most often, are outside of their control.

I mention this because one of the defining phenomena when it comes to male mental health is a general feeling amongst sufferers that they can't talk about it with their peers. Often this is because they don't know how, but it's also frequently because they're told they shouldn't.

"Be a man." "Grow a pair." "Boys don't cry."

It's pretty much guaranteed that practically every man has heard at least one of these phrases growing up - and it's usually when we're young and our minds are very malleable. Internalising such ideas can lead to a lifetime of bottling negative feelings or thought patterns up - and suffering from them without a healthy outlet usually leads to the issues emerging through unhealthy channels instead; substance abuse, violent behavior, aggression and toxic mentalities to name just a few.

Here are a few statistics you ought to be aware of. 76% of successful suicide attempts are undertaken by men, and suicide is the biggest killer of men under thirty-four. It's worth noting that, whilst it sounds as though men try and commit suicide more often than women, in actual fact women are between two and four times more likely to attempt it (the higher success rate is usually attributed to men using more lethal methods, along with being more likely to attempt it multiple times). What's more, 12.5% of the UK's male population is living with one of the common mental disorders - and it's fair to say that this number may be a decent amount higher considering the infrequency with which men seek help for their issues (only 36% of referrals to psychotherapy within the NHS are made by men). Drug and alcohol abuse is also far more prevalent amongst men - 8.7% of men are dependent on alcohol, whilst this is only true of 3.3% of women.

These figures are actually quoted very frequently nowadays, which is great! I'm not going to spend the rest of this article dissecting them, though - what you should take from them is the fact that amongst men there is a much higher prevalence of unhealthy coping mechanisms for mental disorders, and a much lower rate of seeking professional help. Instead of just encouraging you all to go to therapy if you suffer from mental illness (though you absolutely should), I'd like to zoom in a bit more upon the concept of toxic masculinity. Whether you like it or not, toxic masculinity is a very real cultural phenomenon - one that's incredibly damaging to both women and men alike. You'll undoubtedly be at least somewhat familiar with the #MeToo movement that's been bringing this destructive socio-political dynamic into the public eye and holding men to account for their resultant crimes as a consequence. I often scan through the comments sections of Facebook posts on the topic and notice a lot of men saying the same thing, a sentiment generally along the lines of: "men as a whole are being victimised by women for the actions of a few bad eggs." This is also frequently summed-up with the words "not all men".

The people who make that argument are entirely missing the point of the #MeToo movement. What they fail to see is that - provided they're being honest and they really aren't misogynistic in the first place - they are not the target. They assume the takedown of Hollywood rapists, incels, casual misogynists and everything in-between is a generalised attack on every man on the planet. It isn't. It's an attack on those who are a part of the problem, and an attack on the general structure of toxic masculinity that encourages and excuses the terrible behaviors in the first place. Provided you don't perpetuate sexism, you're not the one under criticism.

Assuming that these people aren't misogynists themselves, they totally miss the fact that movements such as #MeToo - and feminism in general - are actually doing men a huge favour. One of the points I've frequently seen being made by feminists in recent years is that toxic masculinity isn't only damaging to women, but also to men. It's this vision of what it means to 'be a man' that leads to both rape culture and men feeling unable to express their emotions. It's toxic ideals like these that lead to abuse against women and male-on-male violence. Psychiatrist Dr. Terry Kupers describes this destructive concept of masculinity as both "the constellation of socially regressive male traits that serve to foster domination, the devaluation of women, homophobia and wanton violence," and "the need to aggressively compete and dominate others." Now, all of the traits described above are incredibly important and worthy of dissection, but considering this article is about male mental health I'd like to use my own personal experiences to home in on one of them in particular. It's the idea of competition that I'd really like to examine for the rest of this article.

Before I learned it was okay to express my emotions - that it actually shows strength, above all else - I absolutely felt a sense of competition with other men. It had been socially-hardwired into me from the minute I learned the difference between male and female. The display of certain feelings or behaviors, I felt, was a sign of weakness and would make me 'less of a man,' whilst others would make me 'more'. For example, to be under-confident or unsuccessful when approaching women was a sign of inferiority to 'better' men. Alternatively, to be physically-dominant or imposing was a quality that 'real men' possessed; somewhat hard to achieve for someone that clocks in at five-foot-seven. Genuinely - for a period during my later teens I wanted to join the Army because I believed that, to feel whole as a man, I needed to experience something that physically and emotionally extreme (thank God I didn't, is all I can say now). Another example: crying in any circumstance would leave me both pathetic and emasculated. To truly feel accepted by my male peers I had to be boundlessly confident and put-together in any situation. These - and others - really were beliefs I held about myself and my relationship to the world around me, and nothing made me properly question them until I came into serious contact with feminism. It turned everything I thought I knew about being a man on its head, and though it has taken years to untangle these negative preconceptions about masculinity (and to fully rid myself of them will likely take years more) I can now look back and see that the ideals I held when I was younger did nothing but make me unhappy.

I cry very often now. I'm a serial crier. I stumbled upon a picture of Jim Carrey helping carry his ex-girlfriend's coffin whilst writing this article and shed a few tears in the middle of Starbucks (though I suspect many people would share my response to that). I don't do it because I'm sad in general - I'm actually far from it. It's because crying is a natural and cathartic way of processing my emotions; and because it doesn't make me 'less' of anything at all (except stressed, perhaps). On another note, I also rarely feel a sense of competition with other men any longer - I'm out of the game, so to speak. We're all just trying to be find our happy place, and mine doesn't need to come at the expense of anyone else's. Perhaps most importantly, I'm not afraid to open up now. I'm comfortable talking about the things that scare me, the things that make me sad, the things that make me frustrated, the things I enjoy that don't necessarily fit into the bracket of traditional 'masculine' interests. I don't need to tick any boxes to feel valuable - the traits I possess, whether they're 'traditionally' masculine or not, all add up to somebody completely unique and worth just as much as everyone else. Nothing has been more transformative to my mental health than realising this.

For this piece I didn't want to simply quote a bunch of mental health statistics about men and say: "don't be afraid to talk, guys!" Whilst that sentiment is absolutely true and worth repeating, it's almost never going to be enough to shake someone out of toxic internalized beliefs about what 'appropriate' male behaviour looks like. Perhaps what I've written here today isn't enough to change anyone's mind either. But hearing me relate a little of my own personal journey out of the murky forest of toxic masculinity - and how much happier it's made me - might have a slightly higher chance of doing so. Guys, if you're suffering from mental health issues - get professional help. That's always going to be the best piece of advice anyone can give to you. But what I'd also like to invite you to do is to re-examine your relationship with your own gender; truly look at yourself and ask whether what you deem as 'masculine' is really making you and the people around you - both male and female - happy. Human beings possess a great deal of power to change our perspectives, but first we have to believe that we should. If even one man who reads this does some positive introspection, this article will have been worth the time it took to write it.

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