'Man up' means 'shut up'
November places focus on men’s mental health, with 19th November being International Men’s Day. Whilst some men may get on board with ‘Movember’ – the campaign in which men grow a moustache or beard in support of men’s mental health and suicide prevention, there is clearly still such great disparity between the awareness and men actually speaking out when they are struggling.
I wrote a short Instagram post on men’s mental health in October for Black History Month, but used the opportunity to target black MEN in particular. This demographic face not only the difficulty of showing emotion in a community that struggles to confront mental health, but showing emotion whilst being black and male – double ‘taboo’ whammy.
Today I sat in on a PSHE session for year 10s at a boy’s school, where the young men were asked to create the stereotypical ‘manly man’ in their groups. The task was met with the usual humour, with suggestions such as being Russian, drinking vodka and showing no emotion equating to the blueprint of manliness. It didn’t surprise me how easily the young men were able to come up with these descriptions of masculinity, what struck me is that it was so much easier to do this than to actually explain WHY they consider these characteristics to be signs of strength.
It led me to question where this gender bias was born. Trying to make an educated guess, I assumed the war period. To be considered a man at the time, you had to fight for your country, and to fight for your country you had to be tough – right? Even if my guess was right and this was the origin, World War II ended in 1945. More than 70 years later and the stereotype has only intensified to the point where the war is no longer the largest cause of death for men under the age of 35, but themselves taking their own lives.
It is safe to say that as each year passes, more and more support is becoming available to support young people with their mental health, however the Prince’s Trust Macquarie Youth Index from earlier this year found that ‘the happiness that young people feel in their lives has fallen to their lowest levels since the study was first commissioned in 2009’. There is still a wide gap between the support being made available and the ability for young people to ask for help.
During my time there as a Fairbridge Executive, I supported young people aged 16-25, from a range of backgrounds and circumstances, yet mental health concerns was a common factor amongst many. Speaking to one of the very first young people on my caseload recently, (named Jay* for this article), I had to ask him why he waited until he was facing the very final choice of suicide before he got any support. As an Asian male, he also faced his fair share of stigma amongst his family and friends, which left him isolated and struggling with the voices he was hearing on his own. “It’s just not something you’re supposed to have” he said. “If I even considered talking to my parents about it, I just thought about the shame it would bring. I know the first thing they would have tried to do is either tell me it’ll go away or just cover it up from everyone else”.
It was hard to learn that the difficulty of speaking to even those closest to him had led him to suffer in silence for so long, however sadly this seems to be the case for many young people, young males in particular. I am pleased to say Jay* is in a very good place now, but his story could have easily ended up a contributor to the harrowing statistic – men still remain three times more likely to take their own lives than women.
Jay* accompanied me to my first mental health workshop for year 10 boys at a school in Hackney earlier this year. Drawing on his own experiences with psychosis, he captivated the audience with his charm and outgoing nature – he was the image of a person you would never expect to be going through something so severe behind the smile. This is why I cannot emphasise the importance of being mindful to the words we use when talking about mental health enough. We live in a society where it is so much easier to banter and tell someone to “man up” than to face to what is really happening; This has created a suffocating mist that cripples so many from being able to speak honestly when they are not coping. It is especially crucial that this toxic message that emotion = weakness becomes a thing of the past.
I have witnessed first-hand that when young people are given a safe environment to discuss difficult topics such as mental health openly, it suddenly is not something that nobody wants to speak about. In fact, they are able to ask questions and potentially have them answered by someone. However, these platforms for discussion are scarce, which is where the 4 Young Minds mission began – to break down the stigma around mental health that prevents so many young people from seeking help by facilitating activity based group discussion. Whilst the aim is prevention rather than cure, the workshops signpost young people to organisations and self-help tools should they need support. In the same way we have a GP for our physical health, we should also know where to go should for support for mental health.