We have come to the end of January and are now in the first week of February, the two months considered the most depressing of the year. The sheer lack of sunlight can make us feel lethargic and, financial concerns are more apparent once the dust of Christmas has settled and normality ensues. Sadly divorce and suicide rates are considerably higher in January, and I know personally that a New Year does not always bring new hope to everybody. Over the course of the last 2 years six men that I know socially have committed suicide. Four of which had absolutely no medically documented history of depression and amongst their close circle of friends the general consensus was that “it was completely out of the blue” and “we never saw it coming”. However, for the deceased this obviously wasn’t the case and the depression, as for so many men had manifested itself over the years. Left undisclosed and untreated and, most of all undiscussed with any of their close male friends and family.
Male suicide is the single biggest killer of men under the age of 45, estimated at around 4,500 per year . That’s higher than cancer which is around 3,000. In addition to this the Office of national statistics outlines the harrowing facts that the male suicide rate is three times higher than the female rate. Even more alarming, this rate has increased gradually year on year since 2002, but what hasn’t increased is the support or understanding of male depression. We continue to not talk about it in any great depth within schools, the media, and I’m confident it’s not something discussed around the dinner table.
I was glad to hear that Theresa May has declared that mental health problems are everyone’s problems and has vowed a step change in the way Britain deals with the issue. I feel that the issue of men’s mental health, in particular, needs to start with open communication and in order to start that we need to tackle the stigma that men feel about discussing their problems.
Women are considered to be the more out spoken sex when it comes to our feelings and our anxieties. Men tend to internalise any feelings of anxiety they may have and avoid conversations relating to their state of mind or, want to admit that anything is troubling them.
These differences are shown in my relationship with my partner. I get very nervous in new social situations and if I am feeling stressed my personality changes and I will be very vocal about what is troubling me.I am certainly not immune to the monthly menstrual ,emotional imbalance that enables me to argue with a stuffed teddy bear 7 days out of every month!
My partner however is exceptionally good when meeting new people, incredibly well liked amongst his peers and will always be the one to diffuse any of our domestic disputes. He, however, requires a monthly prescription of anti depressants to get him through the day.Yet, nobody would think for a second that this man, who is very successful, both in his personal and professional life would need the support of medication to help balance his mindset. My partner does however have a family who are very supportive and due to a heriditary history of mental illness could offer advice and continued support. Other men are not so fortunate.
Today we live in a society full of endless celebrity, social pressures and a ‘you CAN have it all’ attitude to a work life/personal life balance. A lot of people’s lives however are just a train commute from a full head on collision, that even a lo-fi Instagram filter isn’t going to mask well. Despite, many celebrities exposing every second of their ‘perfect lives’ and creating an ideal that many will feel needs to be obtained, there are a few celebrities out there who utilise their position to highlight the social issues faced by men. They don’t shy away from the darkest subject matters of suicide and most Importantly they provide advice on how to get help. Two of the best examples I have encountered who continuously champion male mental health issues are Stephen Paul Manderson AKA rapper Professor Green and ex footballer Stan Collymore. Both could be considered controversial choices when it comes to role models for men, especially given their highly publicised brutish, male personas. Many would consider they fit the typical mould of men who are less likely to discuss their anxieties and feelings. That is why I believe both these individuals are what other men need in order to have a platform to discuss the undiscussed; male depression.
Stephen Manderson’s father committed suicide, and due to an estranged relationship with his mother this led to his grandmother becoming his main guardian. Mental illness is like all illnesses and can be hereditary so when Manderson found himself personally in the midst of depression it naturally conjured up questions about his late father. Interestingly a documentary he participated in entitled “Professor Green: Suicide and me” for BBC3 was the first time he and his grandmother had talked openly about it since the incident. Despite the connection to mental health it had not been discussed between them no doubt because of the raw emotions it would evoke. Imagine then, how difficult it is for a man who has no starting point to voice his concern about his own state of mind. How do you possibly just turn round to your friends or family one day and say “I feel like I want to kill myself” or “every day is a constant struggle”. How does the person they have used as a sounding board then react and advise? I’m quite confident that most would simply say “you need to get help” rather than actually talking in depth with that person abut their mental health, or even having any idea of where to turn for guidance themselves.
Fortunately there is help out there in the form of charities. One of the leading charities is supported by Professor Green himself and is called CALM; campaign against living miserably. They not only offer support through their online activity but also over the phone via a 365 days a year helpline. Their main objective is to be a tool that men can turn to in their darkest hour. However, they also want to challenge a deep rooted cultural barrier that often prevents men from seeking help, because of the stereotypical role they feel they have to play in society as the strong, dominant male.
I feel we all expect the person who has the illness to contact the charity themselves and/or go to the doctor. If you had a broken leg you wouldn’t be expected to drag your own body weight to the nearest A&E. Likewise if you had a bout of food poisoning, and couldn’t conjure up the strength to ring your doctor for advice, you would hope a family member could do it for you.
I firmly believe this is what needs to change in our attitude towards men and mental health. If you have the suspicion that someone is suffering, you should have the opportunity to get support to them, rather than them having to seek it out themselves. With further funding a charity could make outbound calls to mental health sufferers and start building a rapport with that person enabling them to have someone external to the family that they could slowly open up to.
I also think we should be looking further into both the mental and physical nature of men and the consequences for their mental well being.
Take for example Stan Collymore who has been very open both through his presenting jobs and his account on Twitter about his personal battle with mental health. He is a major advocate of how exercise has enabled him to keep some form of control over his depression and anxiety. In addition to this my own partner uses running as a means to calm any overwhelming feelings of worry and anxiety he might feel that day. He immediately feels a sense of achievement and productivity that he would not have felt had he not been able to get out of bed. This however is not a method that is accessible to everyone. Depression can be so overwhelming for some that they can’t physically lift their head from the pillow, and like Stan Collymore has encountered personally, “a feeling like your body has been drained of any life”. How can you then simply put on your running shoes and and have that get up and go mentality. I’m sure for even the most level headed person a daily exercise regime or running everyday is hard to achieve. It is why I do think their needs to be a focus on both charities and the government.
My partner is very fortunate that he can use the support of a personal trainer who has too suffered from depression.He understands the importance of setting achievable daily exercise goals that will enable the body to keep fit and my partners’ mind clear.
By coupling physical activity with open communication there is a balance that is more in tune with men’s mentality and physique than expecting them to be able to lie on a couch and talk about their emotions for an hour. This tactic hasn’t worked so far and I don’t think it will work in the future unless the nationwide treatment plan is more individualised to suit the gender differences.
Furthermore I believe that we accept that in all areas of life both men and women behave differently. This is also the case with mental health and suicide. Sadly, even the methods men use for suicide are different. Most men use hanging or firearms as a method of suicide and these methods are invariably fatal. It is harder to feel that hanging or shooting can be considered a cry for help when they usually result in death.
Women, however, are more likely to veer towards overdoses and self harm which will not always result in death. We understand and accept that women are more expressive emotionally, and therefore they find it easier to ask for, and find, help
Sadly, male suicide is still seen as more of a taboo. A male member of my family tragically killed himself, and for years his cause of death was discussed as a heart condition, rather than suicide.
More recently a close friend’s family chose not to have public service for their son who took his own life. As the mother of two boys my heart aches for her but, I do wonder if this would have been the case if he had he died from a physical illness.
It is imperative for families and friends to be more aware that despite mental illness not been something we can physically see, there are often physical signs in men that can point towards depression. Examples could be ongoing backache, sleep problems, sexual dysfunction, ongoing headaches or digestive disorders. None of these physical disorders will respond to medical treatment as they are not the root cause and are unfortunately the effects that mental health can have on a mans mental and physical wellbeing.
Mental health issues will, sadly, never go away. It’s not like meningitis or the flu that we can vaccinate against. It will continue to manifest itself, and is crippling to both the sufferer and their family and friends who struggle both to help and find help. We need to challenge the one size fits all solution to men’s and women’s mental health needs.
Only then, might we reduce the tragic loss of so many of our sons, fathers, brothers and husbands.