We know that mental health difficulties affect all sections of society and we know that men find it harder than women both to say they are struggling with their mental health and to access personal and professional support. We know this and yet men are still suffering and silenced. What are we doing wrong?
An important question is what are we saying to men about their mental health at a societal level? In many ways being a man has become a far more complicated challenge in recent decades and the messages to men about how they should live their masculinity encompass more and more contradictions. What are some of these social messages? Men should be strong but they should also be emotionally aware and available. Men should engage in traditionally masculine activities such as sport and DIY but they should also take a fair share of the housework and cooking. Heterosexual men should support their partner in a high-flying career but are still expected to be the main wage earner. Men might be allowed to be gay or bisexual but not ‘too camp’ because it makes others uncomfortable. Men are allowed to identify as trans as long as they ‘pass’.
The complex and contradictory nature of those messages are not dissimilar to those given to women and can have a similar detrimental on a man’s sense of identity, role and thus on his mental health. If we are expected to be all things to all people the plethora of demands and choices can lead to a persistent and damaging sense of failure. No wonder men retreat in the face of those demands – into chemsex, the shed, an affair, drugs and alcohol, or into themselves through withdrawal and isolation.
So what can we all do to promote a strong sense of wellbeing in men? I imagine a world in which we can celebrate men’s sense of themselves as masculine, however that may uniquely manifest in each individual. I imagine a world in which boys can grow up with a positive sense of their own identity as people and as men, living that identity with an absence of ‘should’ in relation to any gender norms. This is a message which needs to start in families and in schools and be reinforced by the men and women in a young man’s life. We need to learn from the revolutionary changes brought about by the feminist movements and see that, in a patriarchal system, everybody loses. Rather than envisaging gender through a binary and restrictive lens, we need to celebrate gender’s richness and fluidity.
Katherine, Counsellor and Groupwork Coordinator, SurvivorsUK