Words by Billy Hodder.
If you’re a man aged between 20-49 the biggest risk to your own life isn’t a form of cancer. It isn’t a heart disease or a stroke. It isn’t a drunk driver, a shark attack or a freak accident. This biggest risk to ending your own life as a man aged between 20-49 is yourself.
On average 12 men in the UK take their own life every single day. That’s every 2 hours a man chooses to end his own life. In 2013 the MHO found that out of the 6,233 suicides in the UK, 78% were men. They also found that despite this women were still more likely to have been diagnosed with mental health problems and twice as likely to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.
There’s a common reaction to when someone takes his or her own life, but particularly more relevant when it is a male. “You never would have known” or “but he was always so cheerful”. There is often a sense of bewilderment when public figures such as Robin Williams and Gary Speed take their own lives. A sense of perplexity, confusion and bafflement. The reason why so many are so surprised when a man takes his own life is because we are so scared as men at talking about our own mental health. Our emotions, our insecurities, our emotional wellbeing, our fears, our anxieties and our worries are all withheld and concealed for the fear of compromising our own masculinity. For fear of not adhering, yielding and complying with the stereotypes presented to us by the mainstream media and society.
I surveyed over 100 men and our standout finding was that while 92.39% of men said they would want to be there to support a male friend going through mental health problems, only 43.96% of the same men felt comfortable and confident enough in themselves to talk to their own male friends about their mental health. If ever there was an indicator to the suffocating fear that men face when expressing their mental wellbeing it is this. Further, 54.34% of men felt they wouldn’t or were unsure as to whether they would feel comfortable in seeking mental health support. And just 5.43% of men that we surveyed felt that there was enough support and awareness for male mental health.
For Davey Shields who is in his thirties and has spent a large part of his career working in the media, tackling male mental health has become part of a very personal project. Davey describes his own struggles with mental health vividly and with the bravery and open expression that inspires pretty much any man lucky enough to talk to him. “I was first diagnosed with depression years ago, but with no real steer as to what that means.” Davey tells me “I started becoming more aware of my anxiety. My ups and downs were getting worse. My absolute fear of ruining everything around me consumed me. At the same time I was really struggling with my career in TV.”
It is when Davey starts to describe his lowest moments that it would force the most composed of individuals to shake, “I was a wreck, convinced I was a burden to everyone. One friend even admitted he didn’t want me around as he ‘didn’t deserve’ to deal with my shit. So, I decided there and then to help everyone and kill myself.” Davey then continues, “Thankfully I didn’t get to, through a lucky turn of events, but I finally seeked proper help. Meds were changed and I was working closer with medical services.”
It was during his point of recovery that Davey embarked on the project of Men Talk Health. Men Talk Health is a podcast hosted by Davey himself and his co-presenter Damian. “As I was recovering, I realised I wanted to make this all worth while, I only survived because I talked to people – sometimes the wrong people – but mostly people like Damian.” Davey adds, “I probably wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him.”
“I wanted to use my story telling skills and decided to do a podcast that would hopefully encourage others to talk but more importantly get people laughing.” Men Talk Health is a podcast that tackles mental health through Davey and Damian sharing their own experiences in an almost anecdotal sense. What the podcast does that so many have failed to do is to make such a significant and pressing issue so accessible. The conversations are conducted in the same tone that you would talk to your friends down the pub in. But, instead of football, jokes and gossip the subject is health, mental wellbeing and being able to have somewhere to go when you feel that all avenues are closed.
“What I want the podcast to do is to entertain people in a way that also inspires others who might be going through a mental health crisis. You didn’t have to have mental health issues to enjoy, or follow the show. But, if you do, perhaps something we say helps just that little bit. And helps people open up to friends, GPs or charities there to help them”. When discussing the challenges that men face when addressing their own mental health, Davey notes “Fear of stigma. Fear of the unknown. If men don’t see others talking about it they have no experience of it being okay? The more men chat the more men will realise it’s not just them. That’s why our podcast is so important. It creates more safe spaces to chat.”
John Barry is an honorary lecturer within the department of psychology at University College London and is a founding member of the Male Psychology Network that serves a primary aim to promote the wellbeing of men and boys. When discussing mental health within males, John tells me “There’s another problem here. One, which we have identified as male gender blindness, which I think we all suffer from to some degree. People, including men, don’t tend to get behind men or support them when they’re stressed. I think it’s probably an evolutionary thing. Men are the providers and the protectors in an evolutionary sense and when we’re in trouble people don’t really get it”.
John has worked with numerous psychotherapists, clinical psychologists, councilors, hypnotherapists and life-coaches alongside conducting numerous surveys and research. Not only has it helped him and his colleagues to develop the idea of male gender blindness but also to “identify things, like really basic things, like the fact that although women may have a psychological or sociological problem they are often happier to talk to someone about their feelings but men don’t. Men tend to not. If men have a problem they kind of want to fix it. They want to have some step-by-step rational sort of solution to it and they don’t really want to talk about feelings and this is a key issue.”
John extends this and adds, “There’s another aspect of male gender blindness with what is called the empathy gap. I mean if a woman’s experienced a problem we all kind of try and help. But, with a man experiencing a problem it’s just a difference between the amount of empathy we show.” When discussing ways in which the mental wellbeing of men can be improved in a very broad aspect, John points to the role of the media and academia that could easily be doing more, but also notes the impact that individuals can have. “I really do think we need to stretch a bit further kind of mentally and emotionally than we normally do and that way the prize is we can have sons and brothers and dads who don’t commit suicide.” He goes on to add, “I don’t think there’s really easy solutions. I think it’s got to be a sort of systematic thing. I think as I said with male gender blindness it’s not some misunderstanding that people have, it’s a deep-routed thing. I think we have to struggle against that but I think part of that has got to be for academia to open it’s eyes to what is happening and really properly do some research on this.”
Moving forward John notes the importance of a vote in early April, “I think one things that’s quite important is that there’s going to be a vote in early April, around April the 3rd we think. It’s going to be by the British psychology society and there’s going to be a national ballot of whether we are going to create a males psychology section of the British psychology society. Now, if we achieve that, if we do get a social section for psychologists like a foal point for people to come together to work on this stuff, I think things change. That will be such a big step up, it will be incredible.”
When prevented with such overwhelming and devastating statistics concerning male mental health and particularly within suicide rates it can sometimes have a negative effect in raising awareness. Yes, the statistics may be eye opening but sometimes they can distract from the issue. The issue is that Dads, brothers, friends, workmates, teammates and neighbors are dying everyday. The fact is that you will most definitely know a male who is suffering from mental health but is choosing to internalize it rather than talk about it for fear of compromising his perceived levels of masculinity. That person could be your best friend, your boss or your brother. One day you could walk through your family door to find that your own dad has taken his own life because he wasn’t confident in seeking the support he needed. This happens every single day.
Yes, there are mountains to climb in terms of tackling the issues of male mental health. But, we as individuals can help. A simple “you okay mate?” could be the catalyst for a friend opening up about his mental health and being able to gain the support he needs. That friend you haven’t seen for a while; take him for a pint tonight. If you feel that a male friend is internalizing something; make sure you let them know that you’re there. You don’t have to read a psychology textbook or have PHD. It can be as simple as one text message.
Men are dying everyday at their own hands, this needs to change.
If you need someone to talk to then please call one of these amazing charities below:
For support from Samaritans call 116 123
For support from Mind call 0300 123 3393
For support from CALM call 0800 58 58 58
A special thanks to Davey Shields. You can listen to Davey and Damian’s podcast here.
A special thanks to John Barry. You can find out more about the male psychology network here.