We need to talk about men. Not simply because they’re our brothers, fathers, lovers and sons. Not only because they make up just over half the world’s population. Not just because, whatever your work, wherever you live, however you get by, you’re probably going to have to knock up against or lock down with one or two along the way. But because men are wonderful. Truly wonderful. And there’s something up with men.
The 19th November, also known as today, is International Men's Day, a day which is often dismissed and reviled because 'men have enough, they don't need a day dedicated to them' etc. And yet, we find ourselves in a world where toxic masculinity is crippling our response to a global pandemic, crushing social change, contributing to the climate crisis and killing men. Things are not going well for men.
According to figures from the Office for National Statistics released in September, the suicide rate for men in England and Wales in 2019 was the highest for two decades. Thirty thousand men have died of COVID-19 so far. Men account for roughly three quarters of all suicides registered in the UK. Many of the triggers to mental distress reported by men - job insecurity, work and money - have been exacerbated over recent years as the effects of a tough economic climate worsen under current government policies. Add to that the past nine months of anxiety, illness, physical restriction and loneliness caused by COVID-19 and the government’s not altogether successful handling of the pandemic, it’s sad but unsurprising that so many men are in distress. From depression to alcoholism, PTSD to eating disorders, anxiety to bi-polar disorder, male mental health needs our attention.
Of course being a man can be hard - being a human is hard. At the moment, being alive seems more precious and yet somehow harder than ever. What complicates matters from my point of view - particularly as someone living with a man and raising a son - is that male mental illness often shows up in ways that both men and women misunderstand; Mind found, for example, that men are less likely to show the ‘traditional’ symptoms of depression (sleepless nights, crying, feeling low) and are more likely to ‘act out’ by taking drugs, drinking and being aggressive. Suddenly I wonder if I’ve been attacking men for the very behaviour that should have struck me as a cry for help.
I spoke to quite a number of young men for this piece and the thing that came up over and over and over again was this: men struggle to talk about this stuff. As one man - a media professional - told me, ‘I’ve just realised, while talking about this, that I certainly don’t have the language to properly express how I’m feeling.’ Perhaps, he wondered, that was because he’d never learned how to talk about it. And, if you can’t talk about something, it’s very hard to make any sense of it.
‘A month or so ago I was in the middle of a really turbulent period with work, where I just couldn't cope,’ another man, Chris, told me over email. ‘I didn't feel good, my entire body felt like it was made of glass, and every time I moved I thought I was going to completely shatter.’ He was, he says, constantly on the verge of tears and desperate for someone to notice how much pain he was in. ‘I worry that I'm a total fraud at work, I worry my new manager hates me, and is keen to find a way to fire me. I worry that none of my relationships develop, and I worry about how lonely I am. And all these things… made my joints feel laced with gunpowder. I thought I was going to just explode or something.’ For anyone who’s ever had a panic attack, these descriptions aren’t simply lyrical, they’re exact. The feeling that you’re about to explode from the pressure and power of something happening, somewhere inside you is very, very real.
Hearing people like this describe their experiences, it may seem that men now are better at talking about their mental health. Perhaps. But perhaps, again, not. As Ash, a 30-something ex-pat who was living in the Middle East when we spoke, who had suffered from anxiety and depression told me: ‘I’d guess that there are large areas of the country, whole communities, of all social classes, for whom discussion of feelings as men is still frowned upon.’ As a young man who works in the motor trade but wished to remain anonymous told me, most men he knows and has worked with would rather be signed off work for stress than depression, or anxiety, or any of the other, slightly more nuanced, more accurate descriptions of their mental health. Stress is, it seems, the more acceptable face of mental illness. It is the thing you can admit to on the forecourt of a car dealership or in the HR department of your office.
In their joint report, Delivering Male, Mind and Men’s Health Forum spoke to specific groups of men, to try and get a better understanding of the state of play: men in the criminal justice system, older men, men living in rural areas, black and minority ethnic men, men with eating disorders, ex-servicemen, gay men and men who have been sexually abused in childhood or sexually assaulted as adults. Drawing on interviews with men from all these groups, the report concluded that ‘cultural expectations of men – particularly the belief that men and boys should not express vulnerability – are believed to militate against many men’s ability to give priority to their personal mental wellbeing.’ And here we have the double whammy: the very prescribed rules and expectations of ‘masculinity’ that may push many men into distress (because they feel they’ve failed or fallen short), also then stop those men from seeking help. What may be the problem is also what stops you finding a treatment.
‘Feminism has helped massively,’ another man, Stuart Law told me, perhaps surprisingly. ‘Slowly moving towards a level playing field has reduced some of the cultural pressures on men to be the strong, emotionless worker who keeps it together for everyone's benefit.’ It’s certainly an interesting thought - if we move above and beyond the world of traditional gender expectations and towards true gender equality, perhaps we can start treating mental health - all health - on the basis of the individual. For, as Delivering Male points out, ‘Ensuring that mental health service users are treated as individuals will… greatly increase the likelihood that their gendered needs as men (or women) are taken into account. If all service users are treated as individuals that should also lead to a greater recognition of the shared needs and experiences of groups and communities in general.’
One man I spoke to, who experienced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after working for some months in South Sudan, described a perfectly understandable sense of inferiority when seeking help for his own mental health issues. ‘When I looked at the website for services that did self-referral for post-trauma it seemed to be either for victims - an assault, rape, death of a family member - or this ‘wounded warrior’ stuff,’ he explains. ‘They’d helped men who’d done a year in Iraq or members of the emergency services who’d helped in the 7/7 attacks. It completely put me off. I didn’t want to go to a group therapy and be sitting next to someone who’d broken down after four years of solid war or pulled bodies out of rubble. I just didn’t feel qualified enough to be there.’ Hearing this, I thought of all those Nivea For Men adverts that suddenly repackaged skincare as some chain-hulking, leather-thwacking, grit and rubble expression of maximum masculinity. Men, it seemed, couldn’t admit to having sensitive or painful skin - they had to approach even moisturising from a position of total, traditional, masculine strength. The same message seems to have carried over to mental health. And yet, as this man pointed out, ‘No-one at the point when they’re thinking of referring themselves for help is doing so from the position of strength. You’re not thinking that you’re so heroic that you might need to get some help. You go to those services because there’s a sensitivity or a weakness that you want to address.’
Finally, I asked many of these men what I, as a woman, could do, or should be aware of, or might want to think about, if I suspect that a man in my life might be suffering from a mental health issue. The answers, of course, were manifold. There is no single right thing to do as there is no single type of person. But there were some common answers. Firstly, be open. ‘Be prepared to make mistakes and keep coming back,’ said Stuart Law. ‘Trust that they appreciate the commitment, hope that they let you know how much they appreciate but don't rely on that.’ Ash told me that it can help simply to have ‘an understanding that men struggle’. Almost every man I spoke to also told me that they found it easier to talk to their female friends about their mental health than other men. As one put it, ‘This may be an awful stereotype, but I always feel like women are better and more comfortable talking about feelings than men.’ A stereotype, yes. But a useful guide to what might ease the problem? Certainly.
After talking to so many men for this piece, a few things stand out in my mind. Firstly, quite how many of them wanted to remain anonymous. Which is perfectly understandable, and their absolute right - but it saddens me to think how much we all still ascribe to the idea that to publicly admit to or identify a mental health issue is dangerous. Secondly, I was amazed by quite how many men did want to talk about their mental health. Once when I asked Twitter if there were any women who would talk to me about being on University Challenge I got two responses. When I asked the same followers if any men wanted to speak to me about mental health, I got nearly 30 replies. That says something, doesn’t it? It points towards some hunger, some need to share your experience, even if it is just with a journalist on the end of an email chain. I was also struck by something one man said about how it was easier for women to talk about certain things because their role models were better. Lots of high profile women have talked publicly about fancying other women, about crying, about their struggles with weight, about sex, sadness and insomnia. If you are a young man who is struggling with lockdown, trying to navigate their sexuality, who’s perhaps worried they they might be ‘different’, who finds that possibility upsetting, where do you look for a role model? I’m not sure.
Finally, I was struck, again and again, by how many of the men I spoke to had tried to deal with their mental health entirely on their own. Of the people I spoke to, only two had ever spoken to a professional. We might be willing to pay someone to fix our boiler, to replace our brake pads, to cook our dinner and to clean our windows. We may seek professional help to treat our asthma, to fix our roof, to treat our aching backs or even cut our hair. But we don’t seem quite ready to admit that a mental health professional might be the best person to go to with a mental health issue.
This isn’t just a male problem, a machismo problem, a fathers-and-sons problem, a hormone problem or even, strictly speaking, a gender problem. It’s everyone’s responsibility and we can best shoulder it by working together.
So, here’s to International Men’s Day. And here’s to men, in all their wonder and all their weakness.
Follow Nell on Twitter @NellFrizzell