Last week, Dwayne Johnson openly discussed his experience with depression. It was a big internet moment, as a man who fits the age-old stereotype of everything masculine came forward to discuss his own battle with mental health, which came shortly after his mother’s suicide attempt. Many thanked him, and he told his followers they were not alone.
In November 2017, Ashley Jensen (The Office, Ugly Betty) experienced the traumatic loss of her husband, Terence Beesley, after he took his own life. After 18 years together, Ashley was completely unaware of what her husband was battling. Sadly, she’s not alone. Many men suffer in silence and while this doesn’t always result in suicide, it’s a heartbreaking realisation for many of us who want to protect the men we care about.
Are we even asking men if they’re okay?
We’re starting to highlight mental health issues, but we’re not doing enough to combat the stigma around men, stereotypes, and toxic masculinity as a contributing (but not always driving) force behind their silence. Male depression is as valid as female depression, but we have to stop seeing it as a separate issue.
It’s not a gendered problem, it’s a people problem. Everything we know about being human, about feeling our way through life, is seen as defective. Apparently, feelings make us ‘fragile’. Depression is a human problem that positions humanity as vulnerability.
But many men aren’t told that it’s okay to ask for help.
In the UK, men account for 76% of all British suicide attempts. Another concerning figure is that only 36% of them account for psychotherapy referrals. People don’t have access to the help that they need, and men aren’t getting the counselling they require to learn how to process and recognise their emotions.
Depression can make your mind quiet, disinterested and defeated. There’s danger in some of that quiet, when the silence slips into something violent. Your mind attacks itself, sword fighting through the things you’d rather forget. Memories become enemies, and life is a chore that’s never completed.
People in general are told not to talk about feeling low, in fear of looking weak or erratic. Little boys are taught not to feel, and the men they grow into don’t know how to turn those feelings into something manageable. Boys aren’t taught that feelings are normal, that mental health is real, and that depression is a disease. Not feeling has been force fed to them. Some men have been conditioned to fill the confined space that gender norms have built for them.
But men aren’t stupid, and they’re not cavemen. They know that a stereotype is just that. Many of today’s men are fighting the status quo, and we need to help them, because depression is already killing them.
Depression doesn’t care what kind of man you are.
Depression is subtle, it’s careful and sneaky as it builds a house in your home. It’s the architect of our darkest moments, the exploiter of our traumas. It plays dirty. Sometimes, it sits there quietly, and other times, it screams in our face. Our lights go out, and we wake up to an existence, not a life.
The start is stealthy. From my experience, people don’t wake up one day knowing they’re depressed. It’s a slow, torturous process. After a while, we start to notice (and if we’re lucky, someone else will), and we don’t care about the things we used to. We know we don’t feel like ourselves, but we know that we’ve hit rock bottom. We don’t quite care if we get back up again.
There are things and people we love, but we can’t quite feel them around us.
The voices are insidious. They tell us we’re a burden, that we’re never enough.
So what, or who, do we blame for the lack of conversation around men’s mental health? Do we blame toxic masculinity alone and the manifestations of what it is to be a man? Do we blame the lack of funding in the NHS for mental health, or do we blame the people around us?
Depression doesn’t discriminate, and it’s blameless.
There is no place for blame right now, not with male or female mental health.
We need more words, more work.
We need conversations to happen, so that as people, we can take ownership over our mental health, we need to drive awareness so that we can take accountability for our own role in other people’s lives and wellbeing.
We need to normalise discussion around mental health, because until we do, silence is its most dangerous weapon. We need to recognise that trauma happens to most of us, and be encouraged to identify the things in our lives that have shaped our minds.
I’m someone who over the years, has become more comfortable talking about mental health. I have male friends who have started to discuss their own experiences with depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder. I clearly remember thinking how brave they were to talk about it, but not because they’re men. Maybe I should have.
I’m (quite clearly) not a man, and I was not raised to keep my feelings to myself. I can’t possibly sit here and say that I understand, because I don’t. In the same way that there are many things that men don’t understand about how it is to walk this earth as a woman. I do know what it’s like to feel weak, defeated, and subject to another person’s scrutiny. We need to start paying attention to each other.
These cultural guidelines are stitched into us, and we wear rules like ink. We can change this, we can break down the destructive nature of existing social constructs, and we can dismantle the cultural ideologies of what it takes to be human in a world that’s constantly telling us we’re not enough.
Someone pointed out to me that while men have greatly benefited from generations of patriarchy, it’s also damaged them, too.
They’re continually told it’s not a good idea to express emotions, but people in general are all told to rein it in. Men know better than anyone how to minimise what they feel, and how to turn a punch into a pinch.
There are positive masculine models out there, and there is a way to break down the stereotype of strong, alpha attributes being the acceptable, attractive suit for men to follow. There are men designing new identities for their gender, but depression and suicide, has cultural roots that we need to acknowledge.
We need to recognise that there is little understanding around depression, panic, trauma and other mental health issues. We need to acknowledge the role of social media, and how body image expectations exist for men as they do for women. We need to manage our own expectations of men, and what we expect them to embody. We need more ambassadors, and welcome more people to speak out for the many.
It’s ignorant to assume that all men are raised the same, but research shows sustained reinforcement of gender norms. Men need to be taught from a young age that crying is a human response to life’s obstacles, whether that’s work induced stress, grief or a broken heart. Tears are triggered by emotion, and letting them fall helps people process. Crying is part of that humanity that some are so keen on taking away from us.
Are men emotionally debilitated, and have we made them that way? We all start out the same, after all. We’re brought into life with the ability to feel things, but as we get older, we’re taught to conceal what society considers ugliness. We’ve perfected the masks over the years.
Some men are more comfortable discussing their emotions than others, but we need to nurture ourselves, and the people around us, to understand what it takes to make men feel more comfortable. It’s not about walking on eggshells, it’s about treating people with the patience and respect they need to talk about their problems, regardless of gender.
A common issue is that so many people (myself included), are guilty of saying, “Men need to talk more. They need to communicate. I’m not a mind reader.”
Sometimes, they are talking to us. They might just communicate differently, but this isn’t down to “boys being boys”, and this isn’t about putting the blame directly in men’s laps. People, in general, communicate differently so we need so stop blaming men for something that we all do. We need to stop shutting them down.
Conversation, awareness, education and funding are all things we need to combat mental health.
So is empathy.
Maybe we should stop trying to hear what they’re not saying and listen to what they are.
It’s a start.