In 2014 The Guardian newspaper described Britain’s male suicide rate as a ‘national tragedy’. They stated that while women’s suicide rates were going down, men’s were increasing, and at the time the suicide rate for men was three and a half times that of women.
Statistics show that it’s harder to diagnose depression in men (they talk less and are less likely to seek help than women), four in five suicides are by men, and for men under the age of 35 suicide is the biggest cause of death. So what’s going on?
Co-founder of the Self-Esteem Team and the government’s first Mental Health Champion for Schools Natasha Devon, says: “what is coming through very clearly is that young men in particular aren’t comfortable with talking ‘for talking’s sake’ or in any situation where they feel exposed or vulnerable. Teenage boys tell us they would like to live in a culture where there is no stigma attached to men talking about their emotions and where it is seen as a sign of strength rather than weakness.”
And herein lies an interesting point, which should perhaps be obvious, but clearly needs to be highlighted – men and women struggle with similar things, but how they deal with those things is different – but is that nature or nurture?
Jane Powell, CEO of CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) who aim to support young men and address male suicide rates says: “men and women equally consider suicide and the types of things that worry us are similar – death, break-ups, status, relationships – what’s different is what we as a society accept and what we allow in terms of behavior.”
By way of illustration Jane points to simple things in our every day vernacular – while of course it isn’t acceptable to tell a woman to ‘get back in the kitchen’ for example, it is acceptable to tell a guy to ‘man up’. A terms which she believes is indicative of a very damaging attitude implying that to be a ‘real man’ you need to be strong, be capable and be a shoulder for everyone to cry on.
By contrast women have support when they are weak, strong or anything in between – just as they should, it’s just that we need to be offering men the same support and remove any inverted sexism that may be targeted their way.
That said, while the concerns are similar for many men and women, the delivery of support and perhaps more importantly the general mode of seeking it out (or not as the case may be) does mean that there are subtle differences in the way we can support men, that are unique to them.
Jane talks candidly and emphatically about the realities that men are facing says that CALM is struggling to cope with the number of phone calls they have from men who are struggling and part of the problem is this issue of perception; that it’s seen as being weak to talk: “what we hear from guys is that it is really hard to talk because the expectations and status around them is so tight; worrying that it makes them seam ‘a bit weak’ or ‘a bit of a pussy’.”
“The barrier is really high for guys,” she says and as a result they often feel that “the only way they can get through and feel they deserve sympathy is if they are some kind of victim in another way – if they’ve lost a leg perhaps or if they are some kind of hero and thus ‘deserving’ of sympathy.”
The messages she believes are coming from all angles – advertising, society, internally, and in general conversation, and the cumulative result is extremely damaging. While it’s ok for women to cry, it’s not ok for men.
Through research in boys schools and consulting with a psychologist who specialises in male mental health in order to try and get a better understanding of the interventions that might work for men, The Self-Esteem Team say that teenage boys tell them they “feel most comfortable talking whilst doing an activity, like exercise, so it’s not focused entirely on the discussion. One teenage boy told us he had one of the most valuable conversations he’d ever had with his mum whilst they were both painting a wall.”
As a result one of Natasha’s objectives is to quite literally “make it a priority to draw boys and men into the mental health conversation in a way that resonates with them.”
What’s interesting is that the issues both Natasha and Jane highlight when it comes to supporting men with mental health issues are not complex, but they do require a societal shift that we are probably unaware we are still imposing on men in many ways. Of course the specifics of mental health are deeply complex irrespective of sex; that is very much down to the individual.
But across the board the ability to talk and help men to feel that it’s acceptable to be vulnerable as well as strong appears to be a key starting point. It’s not that it’s the main answer, but it turns out talking isn’t as simple for all of us as we might like to think.
We all know how valuable it can be to spend time with friends, loved ones and simply ‘be’. As that one boy told Natasha about painting a wall with his mother, sometimes it’s the moments when you least meant to talk, simply spending time with people who you feel supported by, that it becomes easiest to start a conversation.
So how do we make it easier? How do we make it ok for men, as well as women, to feel like it’s ok to talk? It appears to be an evolving journey, but thank goodness for the likes of CALM and The Self-Esteem Team perhaps who are starting the conversation for those who don’t feel able to.
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