Men are suffering in silence and it’s costing them their lives. Male suicides account for 75% of all suicides in the UK. However, men are less likely than women to report feeling suicidal and they make up only 36% of NHS talking therapy referrals.
How We Got Here
For a lot of men, myself included, there was no word for anxiety growing up. You were just shy — meaning ‘weak’. To feel any emotion was perceived as effeminate, which was the worst thing you could be. When boys are told not to cry, it stunts their growth. The pressures that men put on each other and themselves then act like a prison, leaving no way out when times are tough.
After all, how can we expect men to cope with feeling suicidal when they haven’t been able to express sadness without shame?
Many people cite a partner as the person they can be most honest with, but if your partner is the only person you can open up to, it leaves you one port in a storm. That’s why marriage breakdowns lead more men to suicide than women, because men rely more on their partners for emotional support.
If we are to move forward, it’s essential for men to form more emotional bonds where they can be open about their feelings. In fact, it’s life or death.
Make a Change
Instead of a beer, how would you feel about meeting a friend for a coffee? Too effeminate? For some men, it can be hard to separate socialising from drinking, which is a big issue when you’re struggling. If you can’t connect with people without having to consume a depressant, it’s a recipe for depression.
How would you feel about going for a curry with the boys? What about having them over for a takeaway? Could you cook the curry yourself or is that too effeminate? It can be hard to separate spending from socialising as well, meaning when money’s tight we become isolated.
These are just two examples of how male social norms can entrap men — but it doesn’t have to be this way. You can break the cycle by being brave and doing something different.
Undoubtedly, you will require things that are not ‘manly’. Avoiding them for that reason will make you feel worse, even if it makes you feel like a man.
Many of us struggle with self-care. We see it as selfish and feel guilty. For some men, it seems effeminate too. For now, I will set aside the question of what’s wrong with being effeminate and talk instead about the predicament this puts men in.
A lot of us overlook the little things we do that make a big difference to our mood. We take them for granted, until we stop doing them and the impact becomes clear. Like having a shower. It might not make your day, but it would certainly mark a downturn if you didn’t shower for a week.
Sometimes we need more than routine niceties though. Like having a bath, with candles and music. Treat yourself how you would treat somebody else, like your partner, child or parent. And by treat, I mean reward, surprise, entertain, give. Show yourself that you love yourself — or does that sound too effeminate?
Now you see the issue. If you don’t believe it’s acceptable for a man to love himself or treat himself, how do you pick yourself up when you’re feeling down?
These pressures don’t only come from ourselves, but our culture too. You may have friends or family who judge your behaviour. They may say something when you try something new. I wouldn’t be able to talk about any of this had I not experienced it first-hand.
The question is: do they want you to be happy? If you’re not sure, is that a relationship you want to take a step back from?
Also, do they have to know? Why not try making changes for yourself by yourself to begin with. Only involve others when you feel comfortable, starting with whoever’s easiest.
I once worked with a middle-aged man who experienced a serious injury, meaning he could never work again. He lived alone, with no structure to his day and little-to-no social interaction. Unsurprisingly, he felt depressed. When I tried to explore ways to increase his social interaction, we met a wall. He didn’t have enough money to see his friends, who always drank at the same bar. I asked if he could go and not buy anything. He said no, because they’d buy him drinks and he’d feel bad. I asked if he could say he wasn’t drinking. He said no, he’d feel embarrassed. I suggested he invite them to his house for a cup of tea or a walk. He didn’t think it would work. As a result, he remained in the same situation, feeling worse and worse.
All of us experience some variation of the above in our lives. Situations where we don’t do what’s best for ourselves because we worry what others may think. It’s called mind-reading. As the name suggests, it’s a superpower we like to think we have — but we don’t.
The truth is, we don’t know what other people are thinking. The next time you decide against doing something because of what people might think, write down your predictions and test them. Treat the activity as an experiment. Afterwards, ask people what they thought and compare it to your predictions. Were you right? And if you were, how do you feel about that? Was it worth it still?
What you will have done in that moment is break the cycle preventing you from feeling better, the benefits of which are incremental. You just got one point against your anxiety or depression. Then it’s game on.
After a break-up, I remember feeling sad that I wouldn’t be able to see a certain film at the cinema, because I didn’t have anyone to go with. I thought friends would be too busy and I felt embarrassed at the thought of going alone, thinking people would judge me. I met a wall. So, I challenged myself to go alone anyway and see how it felt.
And you know what? I loved it so much I bought an annual membership.