It is Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK. I could write about many things under that topic, but I often feel that contrary to most things in our patriarchal and heteronormative society, men’s mental health is something people really don’t like to address. Obviously, this has been changing in recent years with the great work and campaigns of organisations such as The CALMzone and Heads Together.
And listen, I’m as queer and feminist as they come, and I’m down for the fall of patriarchal, and heteronormative power structures. And as much as I don’t give fellow men any excuses about their many untoward behaviours, I feel that unless we talk about the causes of these behaviours, we won’t ever make any changes…and those power structures will never change! So here I am, and here it is.
Firstly, let’s break some things down, shall we?
Mental health. One of my pet peeves is hearing someone say “They’ve got mental health”, when what they mean is “They’re struggling with some kind of mental health difficulty.” Because, my dear, we ALL have mental health. Mental health refers to our psychological and emotional wellbeing. Let me say that again, psychological and emotional wellbeing. Not disease, or condition, or even difficulty…wellbeing! Having psychological and emotional wellbeing refers to the resilience one has to engage with all of life’s circumstances: highs and lows, good and bad, happy and sad, joy and tragedy. Mental health can then have conditions and problems. A mental health condition refers to a clinical diagnosis, something that not everyone has or gets, but which we all have the potential to receive. (Also, I shall not address misdiagnoses right now, that’s a whole different conversation!) A mental health condition would be psychosis, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, clinical depression, etc. A mental health problem would also be an imbalance in our psychological and emotional wellbeing, but it’s not a diagnosis, and may be affected by something else. For example, when we experience loss or grief, these things will affect our mental health, but they are not a condition. It’s normal to feel depressed or even unstable after certain life circumstances: divorce, death of a close one, unemployment, life-changing diagnoses, etc. For all of these, it’s important to be able to reach out and seek support. Therapy is not for “crazy” people – an expression used since the days of sending people to asylums – but for anyone who feels they could use some support in their psychological and emotional wellbeing.
Now, let’s add the particular experience of men into this mix. Actually, let me put in a disclaimer here: this will be a generalised view of things. I’m obviously aware that not everyone is exactly the same, and that many families are now raising children away from gender binaries. However, by and large, gender binaries are very much still part of the status quo.
If I were to ask you about the first things that come into your head that people might say to young boys, what would some of those things be? Some of mine were: “Don’t cry”, “Don’t show them how you feel”, “Don’t feel”, “We don’t talk about those things”, “Get on with it”, “Be a man”, “Be strong and brave”, “Boys don’t cry”, “Hit him like a man”, “We don’t hug”, “You should do it on your own”, “Asking for help is weak”. There are many, many others. And I’m sure you can probably think of plenty of examples. So, let’s think about this. If we raise boys like this, how do you think they will develop as men? Do you think a man will be able to clearly identify feelings, to express them appropriately, to ask for help when he’s overwhelmed? Some will, definitely! But many, won’t and don’t. These latter ones will engage in all sorts of behaviours whose root cause is a feeling they’re not able to identify and express.
I experienced something last Summer which made the connection between the way I was raised and how I am today, a bit clearer. I had this crisis where all the meaning that I had previously attached to my life, left in one fell swoop on a Wednesday morning in early May. In fact, for the past couple of years, early May has been consistently dreary, but that’s a story for another time. The catalyst for this monumental shift in lived experience started with the end of a job and had this avalanche effect throughout my life and it felt like everything had been decimated. Everything I thought I knew, believed, wanted…gone! Sense of purpose? Gone! Ambition? Gone! Desire? Gone! I felt like I had nothing left. Not even enough shallow pride to prevent me from going back to Portugal for a few months with my tail between my legs. The day before I arrived, my mother told me that she had had an argument with my brother. A big one. My first thought: “Great!” paired with an eye roll which circled the Earth thrice in a second.
My first decision, as I was going back home to retreat from my own life and try to find some sense for it, was to remain neutral. No matter what. Second decision: to not get involved in any way. Third decision: under no circumstances, was I to inadvertently be their therapist, or even mediator. I needed self-preservation, no matter what. My life had just collapsed in front of me, and I needed to remind myself that I was not strong enough to hold anything else, besides my own rubble. Call me selfish, I don’t really care!
I was more or less successful in this, and still being strong in my neutrality to this day, but there was this day where I spend some time with my brother and we didn’t even talk about any of it. In fact, we don’t really talk much to each other. The love and support is there, I know and I feel it, but the expression of those things… well, it’s very rare. On both parts. And me being me, I was acutely aware of this silence. I felt its heaviness, its weight on my chest and in my throat. Something wanting to come out and not being able to. Later that evening, my mother confronted me about this and very exasperatedly asked “How can you two not talk about it to each other? Why can’t you ever talk about anything?”
And then it dawned on me: because of you, dear mother! I mean, not her specifically, but all the adults that were involved in mine and my brother’s upbringing. Who was it who told us for years to not share our feelings? Who told me countless times at the dinner table that “we just don’t talk about those things”? Who was it who said that we shouldn’t show our emotions to other people? Who was it who implied through countless actions and words that we were not to speak about our feelings? And here is the catch: tell me, how can you expect men to be able to express themselves with clarity and authenticity, when at every single step of our development we are told not to feel, or express anything besides “manly anger”? How did my mother expect me and my brother to share our feelings with her when she raised us not to? What kind of fucked up expectation is that? Think about it!
This is a micro example, of a massive macro problem: psychological and emotional wellbeing in men. Every time you tell a boy to “get on with it”, to “suck it up”, to “be a man”, that “boys don’t cry”, what you are doing is raising someone who will later on struggle tremendously to say how they feel, or even to understand what they’re feeling! Even the simplest expression of feeling will be difficult, because when we are taught and shown to hide “bad” feelings, we also end up hiding the “good” feelings. I also had a similar insight when I was writing my MA dissertation about gay men’s mental health. Yes, there are many additional factors that contribute to imbalanced psychological and emotional wellbeing in gay men, but one of those factors is that we are also men. And like all men, we are usually raised not to feel. Men aren’t angry because they’re men, men are angry because they weren’t taught or shown to express themselves in any other way. We all know the feeling of an emotional explosion of previously bottled up feelings. We know that this kind of explosion is always disproportionate to the situation, unrelated to the person at the receiving end of it, and unmanageable. Male energy often manifests as destructive – both towards self and others - because of this. It’s toxic, unprocessed, emotional material.
It’s years upon years of feeling without expressing, of numbing, of building pressure. Have you ever stopped to think about the fact that the highest cause of death in the UK of men under the age of 45 is suicide? Every week, 84 men in the UK take their own lives! Out of all the things that lead to death, the leading cause is suicide! Death by self! Do you really need a study to make this connection? Why are all these men killing themselves? Yes, media reports always point to financial ruin, or marital affairs, or other types of difficult situations, but these are just symptoms. Why aren’t men asking for help and support? Oh yes, they were taught not to. Why can’t men say how they feel? Well, you taught them as boys that feelings were for girls, and something to be ashamed of. Why can’t men identify their feelings? Did you ever sit down with a little boy to talk about his feelings, or did you give him some version of “Be strong, get on with it”? And trust me, suicide is not really about ending one’s life, it’s about ending one’s pain. Those are two very different things. This is from someone who’s been to that edge and didn’t step over.
Having resilience in one’s psychological and emotional wellbeing, is actually not about learning new skills and tools. It is first and foremost about UNLEARNING all these narratives that we have. You can’t add new things into your life, if you don’t remove the things that are causing chaos or disruption first. You can’t be in an emotionally balanced and fluid relationship if you keep your feelings to yourself. Men won’t magically open up or express themselves authentically just because you tell or expect them to. Unlearning this, means a lot of work. It means small steps, awkward and difficult conversations, removing labels and layers and self-beliefs that were built up for years and decades. We need to check in with ourselves about our own beliefs and assumptions about men. Are we reinforcing these things without thinking? Are we telling boys not to cry? Are we telling our boyfriends to act more like a man? Most importantly, even if you are not saying any of these things… are you thinking them? Because if you are, you probably believe in these things too.
Men need to talk. We need to cry. We need to feel our hearts and our bodies. We need to hug and hold each other. We need to connect to emotions we were never allowed to feel. We need to connect to our inner child and allow all these little boys to be playful and to laugh. We need to connect to one another. To love one another. To love ourselves. In order to do this, we need to unlearn that vulnerability is a weakness. We need to unlearn that we have to figure everything out on our own. We need to unlearn that we are superior and deserve more. We need to unlearn that power is about control. We need to unlearn that strength is about physicality. We need to unlearn that success is about money. We need to unlearn that masculinity is about control, aggression, and violence. We need to unlearn that emotion, compassion, and empathy are “unmanly” things.
As we unlearn all of these, we will be able to learn new ways of being and relating. And I, for one, know how much I need to learn new ways of being and relating.
And yes, there is vast gender inequality in the world, but what we need to remember is that we are all by-products of a much bigger system, and that it’s really hard to wake up from that system and begin to dismantle it. Part of that dismantling must include unlearning our current beliefs around masculinity and what it means to be a man.