Man down? We need to talk

It feels like a number of things have converged over the last few weeks that have made me think a lot about mental health and the support provided for it in the UK, especially for men like myself.

The first of these was one of Mind’s general election 2015 ask that the NHS in England should offer talking therapies to everyone who needs them within 28 days of referral. The second was Emma Watson’s powerful HeforShe speech to the UN assembly  in which she talked passionately about gender equality not just for women but for men in turn. Her words about gender equality in its broadest sense hit a chord with me and echoed some of my own thinking over the past couple of years. And finally the third has been my own most recent period of ill mental health.

You might be thinking what do gender equality, my own mental health and talking therapies have to do with each other. The last two might be obvious but how gender equality fits in may not be quite so clear.

77% of suicides in the UK last year were men – that’s three times more than women.

Lets start with a statistic, one that may be reasonably well known but still no less shocking. The single biggest cause of death amongst men aged 20-49 in the UK is suicide. That’s more deaths through suicide than road deaths, cancer and heart disease . 77% of suicides in the UK last year were men – that’s three times more than women (source: CALM). This isn’t to suggest mental health is a bigger problem for men than it is women but how it’s handled by society and by men themselves clearly is.

What’s this got to do with gender equality? As Emma Watson so powerfully pointed out:

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“Gender Equality is your [mens] issue too…  my father’s role as a parent [is] valued less… I’ve seen men made fragile and insecure by a distorted sense of what constitutes male success. Men don’t have the benefits of equality either.”

As boys we are taught, purposefully or unconsciously, that to be vulnerable is to be weak. Notions that ‘boy’s don’t cry’ and that we should ‘man up’ are still prevalent and ingrained in how we bring up our male children and how we treat ourselves. Is it surprising then that so few men feel able to talk about their difficulties?

From my personal experience of mental health issues, I know that I for one saw myself as inferior man because I didn’t feel able to succeed or even survive in the society we currently live in. I exhausted myself trying to keep the pretence up that I was happy with how my life was going and the decisions I had made. Slowly but surely things had started slipping away from me – girlfriends, a healthy social life and eventually everyday things became too difficult to deal with. I struggled to admit even to the people closest to me what was really going on until I literally couldn’t hide that I was struggling any longer.

So why didn’t I feel able to admit I was having problems, that I was finding life a bit too much of a struggle? I had been fortunate enough to grow up in a very open and liberal family and in an environment that didn’t really conform to stereotypes in any shape or form including ones around gender. In theory I shouldn’t have found it difficult to share what was going on and I shouldn’t have tried to conform to the culturally accepted norms of what a man should or shouldn’t be. Yet I did.

I struggled to admit even to the people closest to me what was really going on.

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And it’s what makes this issue – gender inequality and its impact on mental health – particularly poignant for me. Even considering my upbringing I still didn’t feel able to ask for help or even to talk about what I was going on for a very long time.

Eventually I did, which moves me on to the part of the story – the role of talking therapy and why Mind’s campaign that the NHS prioritize this is so important. I have been seeing my therapist for over a year now and I cannot express how much just being able to talk to someone about what’s going on in my head on a weekly basis has helped.

I know as a man talking was the last thing I wanted to do or thought I wanted to do.

Talking therapy, sharing, whatever you want to call it really does help. It doesn’t solve everything but it can have a huge impact. I know as a man this is the last thing I wanted to do or thought I wanted to do but once I admitted that I wasn’t ok, that I was feeling vulnerable and that I needed some help the world became a much more bearable place for me. And once you’ve been to talking therapy you’ll find that talking about these things in general will become much less uncomfortable.

From being more open and honest about what was going on for me I not only found support from people around me, some of which I’d never have expected it from, but I also a whole host of seemingly ‘normal’ (whatever normal is), ‘successful’ people who were and are dealing with their own difficulties on a daily basis. Friends that you thought that you’d known for years, family members, even work colleagues.

The point is you’re not alone and being able to talk with others will make you realise this.

This is why it’s vital for the right for everyone not just men to have quick access to talking therapies. And why Mind’s call for access to talking therapies to become a top policy issue going into the next election is something I wholeheartedly support.

Please support mind and write to you local MP and make sure it’s not ignored: http://www.mind.org.uk/news-campaigns/campaigns/access-to-talking-therapies/

Below are some useful and interesting links relating to this article:

https://www.thecalmzone.net

http://www.yearofthemale.com

http://malestrom1.tumblr.com

Image credits: ‘Speak no evil’ Erin Ryan,