Men and boys need to start talking about mental health

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What does it mean to be a man? And what does it mean to “man up”?

The idea of being a good man has existed in our culture for centuries, and is most often about standing up for what’s right and helping those in need. But “manning up” is a different concept entirely, imbued with deeply toxic traits. Don’t cry. Don’t express your emotions. Be confident, aggressive, even violent. And never, ever allow yourself to be compared to a girl.

“A lot of work has been put into bifurcating gender and giving us stereotypes,” says Jennifer Siebel Newsom, director of The Mask You Live In, a documentary on modern masculinity. “We’re all born with empathy, but it is then socialised out of boys.”

But placing pressure on men to fulfil traditionally “masculine” roles, and labelling traits like nurturing and sensitivity as “feminine,” is not only out-dated; it’s harmful. While “manning up” is intended to show strength, it actually leaves men vulnerable, as they can lack the emotional tools to cope with pain, anger and depression.

We need to teach young boys that crying doesn’t make you weak, and that bottling up your emotions isn’t healthy.

As we come to the end of National Mental Health Awareness week, it’s worth remembering that in the UK, suicide is the biggest cause of death in men under 35. According to figures published by Men’s Health Forum, three out of every four people who take their own lives are men. Men are also nearly three times more likely than women to develop a dependence on alcohol, and to use illegal drugs.

12.5% of men in Britain have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder. The of guys actually living with mental illness is no doubt much higher than that, as men are less likely to seek help; only 36% of IAPT referrals are men.

Even in 2017, there is still a stigma attached to seeking psychological help. People talk about mental health problems in an entirely different way than they would other illnesses with more visible physical symptoms. And when you’re a man, this stigma is doubled, because there is often a deep-seated fear that by talking about your feelings and asking for help, you will be seen as weak.

And it’s not just a male thing. It’s a British thing. As a society we do everything in our power to avoid uncomfortable conversations — making a joke is easier and less awkward than plucking up the courage to ask for help, or offer it.

Men need to start talking to each other about the things that really matter.

So how can we change this?

Men can start by being kinder to each other. So much of western masculine culture is about rejecting all things “girly,” that when men do find themselves struggling, they’re less likely to seek support or confide in friends. The banter aspect of lad culture doesn’t help. Sure, most of it is meant to be innocent enough, but this constant performance of being somebody who can take a joke and never gets their feelings hurt makes it harder for men to ever break character.

Men need to start talking to each other about the things that really matter. And just as importantly, we need to teach young boys that crying doesn’t make you weak, and that bottling up your emotions isn’t healthy.

The time has come to speak up. Because silence kills.