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By Steve Chalke

Why men’s mental health is an issue for all men and whole communities.

‘Man up. Shape up. Step up. Keep up.’ That’s the message to men.
But what happens when, well… we just can’t?
Anxiety, depression and despair amongst men are at an all-time high. The latest UK statistics are frightening:
At any one time, it’s believed that one in eight men (that 12.5 per cent of us) are trying to cope with diagnosed mental health issues – and that’s just the disclosed cases. Many more are invisible.

78 per cent of suicides (almost four in every five) are by men.

For men under the age of 45 suicide is the biggest single cause of death. In other words, the thing that is most likely to kill a young man is himself!

In the last five years the suicide rate in males aged 45-59 has also increased significantly.
Thirteen men take their own lives every day.

We also know that 25 per cent of those men have visited their GP during the previous seven days. It was just too little, and too late.

It is a bleak picture. When it comes to male mental health and emotional well-being, we have a crisis.

The highly complex interwoven issues that sit behind these alarming statistics are ones that doctors and public health specialists continue to research and battle with.  But – just like many of the other multifaceted challenges our society faces – my experience has taught me that this doesn’t mean we can’t take action to make a difference right now.

A friend of mine grew up as part of a religious community that taught homosexuality was sinful. His father was one of its leaders. But as he reached puberty, he slowly came to what for him at the time was, as he describes it, ‘the very painful recognition’ that he was gay. Silently and secretly, he prayed every day for forgiveness for being who he was. He vowed to God as well as to himself that he would always resist temptation; that he would never give in to his desire, that he would live a celibate life. For most of the time – through sheer determination – this strategy worked. But every now and then, having to live in denial of who he was became so overwhelming that, after huge internal battles, he would cave into the desire to watch porn on his laptop, or to a sordid and secret one-night stand. He hated himself for this, but felt powerless to prevent it.

Like us all, he knew that good mental health and well-being is dependent on being able to open up about who we are and how we feel to those closest to us. But how could he do this, when he knew for certain that it would lead to his rejection, not only by his community but by his family. He was lonely, vulnerable and isolated; trapped in a world of ongoing deceit.  

So, finding a new job and using it as an excuse, he moved away from home. Still – in spite of his fight to deny who he was – his sexuality pulled at him irresistibly. And, as he dived deeper into the inevitable depression caused by this, he began to turn to drugs, simply in an attempt to blot out his feelings of guilt and shame.

By now, he hated himself. He told me that every day he would get up, walk to the bathroom of the flat he was renting, look at himself in the mirror and think,
‘I hope that this is the last day of your miserable life.’

Eventually – now dependent on the drugs that he also despised himself for taking – he decided to end his life. Very late, one cold winter’s night he stood on a lonely bridge across a river and prepared to throw himself into the dark, murky, freezing water. But, at that very moment, his phone rang in his pocket. A friend, who had never called him before, was checking to see how he was. They talked. The moment of absolute desperation passed. My friend’s mood lifted a little. He walked off the bridge and headed home.

If the macho message is ‘Man up’ and ‘Get over it’, a softer, more sensitive approach tells us to ‘Open up’ rather than ‘Close down’. This, we’re told, is a far more honest and healthy way to deal with life’s struggles. Emotional openness and vulnerability are not signs of personal weakness, but instead are probably the most accurate indicators of our inner sense of courage.

However, what happens when you just can’t find that courage?

Way back in the 1980s, one of the first-ever projects launched by Oasis, the charity I founded, was a safe house for vulnerable and homeless young adults. Our goal was to equip and empower them on their journey towards living independently. Before we opened, my wife and I kitted the whole building out with a great deal of care. We bought artwork for the bedrooms and hallways and we chose the furniture in order to create a relaxed and welcoming environment. For the shared lounge, we bought a huge TV.

We were so excited to open. I still remember the day. But there was a shock to come. I was expecting our residents to enjoy their new home, to be cheerful. To smile. To share. To readily express their thanks and appreciation. Instead they were silent. With some, it even proved impossible to make any eye contact. And within weeks of our first residents’ arrival, most of the artwork we had bought had been stolen and sold. The walls were bare. The unit on which the TV had been placed stood empty. The house had been stripped and I was frustrated and angry.

But slowly – all too slowly – I came to see that the problem was really mine. I am ashamed to admit it, but because the wounds these young people had suffered were psychological rather than physical, it was too easy to misread their responses and, as a result, to react rather than respond to them, and so to judge them negatively. If theirs had been a physical rather than an emotional disability, I would have been ready to compensate for them far more easily.

Thinking about the same thing in a different context, why is it OK to take time off work with a broken arm but somehow ‘emasculating’ to admit to depression? Why is an asthma attack viewed as just one of those things, but a panic attack seen as a sign of weakness?

When a person has been abused – physically, sexually or psychologically – or neglected (realities that are tragically all too common in our society) they are prone to suffer enduring negative and debilitating impacts. The anger, shame and despair they experience may be directed inwards to spawn symptoms such as withdrawal, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress and thoughts of suicide, or be channelled outwards through behaviour such as aggression, impulsiveness, delinquency, hyperactivity and substance abuse. It’s just that when we can’t see the wounds, it is far harder to understand the behaviour.

My friend Joe is a highly talented and professionally extremely successful individual. But he is a man haunted by childhood rejection which, 30 years later, still leaves him with a lack of confidence, crippling introversion and an inability to form close, trusting friendships. He lives alone as a semi-recluse, having never been able to form an intimate relationship, battling with an eating disorder that has destroyed his physical well-being and from time to time threatens his life.

I have learned from my own personal experience that the more anxious I become, the more short-sighted, restricted and hampered my view of things also becomes. But I’ve also learned that although the scars I carry tell the story of where I’ve been, they do not dictate either who I am or where I am headed.

So how do we break the stigma that surrounds the issue of poor male mental health? How do we defeat the narrative that asserts that masculinity is all about being tough?

I believe that it’s society’s misguided focus on the individual that does much of the damage:

Why do we see men’s mental health as something to be addressed at an individual level?  

By placing the focus on the individual, are we just placing more pressure on men who are already struggling?

If a man is to open up and talk about his feelings, who is he going to talk to?

It is good to encourage men to talk more, but should we also be teaching them to listen to each other more?

Although often portrayed as ‘a man’s issue’, men’s mental health is instead a ‘men’s’ issue. Indeed, it is an issue that the whole community needs to address: men, women, everybody.

Much of the advice out there for men provides them with ‘top tips’ for better mental health but mistakenly targets the individual. I want to address what we can do collectively, in our communities, as small groups; from joining a football team to volunteering at a youth club; from mentoring a young man at a local school to organising a regular ‘mates evening’ down at the pub.

After more than three decades of experience working within local communities across the UK and beyond, one thing I am convinced of is that small communities and strong relationships are the most powerful drivers of good mental and emotional health for all. Thriving local neighbourhoods create the strongest and best support networks. None of this is to downplay the critical role that the professionals working in mental health and the social services play. But prevention is far better than cure. It is only within our communities that we will discover the real solutions which will help avert crises, build resilience, and prevent those who are stressed and isolated from sliding further into mental ill health.

The research also tells us that in every class of thirty teenage boys, at least three will already be in trouble emotionally. Yet the children’s and adolescents’ mental health service (CAMHS) is saturated beyond the ability to cope.

I regularly hear from young men in schools who find it difficult to talk honestly and openly about themselves, for fear of how they will be perceived by their peers. One fourteen-year-old student, whose mum and dad had just split up, recently told me that he envied the girls in his school because they seemed to have the kind of friendships where they had someone they could tell everything to. ‘Boys don’t’, he added. Instead, he explained that he felt that he had to hide who he was and to try to keep a lid on his feelings. The problem was that meant they just festered. In fact, he told me that he had started skipping lessons and getting into fights. He said that it was just a way of coping.

But ironically, for him, he had found hope – simply because he had found a way at last of talking.

The key to good men’s mental and emotional health is to create natural opportunities for men – young and old – to talk together, which means:

Reducing the pressure on those who want to talk by establishing conversations they can easily join, rather than leaving them to initiate a conversation themselves

Placing as strong an emphasis on listening as on talking. As I discover time and time again, merely being present can be hugely beneficial to those struggling with mental health challenges.

As Henri Nouwen, the great pastoral writer, once put it: ‘The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.’  

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