THE COLUM­NIST

YOU MAY SAY YOU’RE FINE, BUT: ARE YOU OK?

GQ (Australia) - - THE COLUMNIST - DAN ROOKWOOD

It must be the most com­monly asked ques­tion in the world, a rote pleas­antry that’s an­swered on au­topi­lot. “Fine, thanks. You?” The trou­ble, for some of us, is that it’s just not true. We are not OK, thanks. In some su­per­fi­cial re­spects, men have never looked af­ter them­selves very well, but when it comes to real well­ness – our men­tal health – the stats are de­press­ing. Ac­cord­ing to the Men’s Health Fo­rum in the UK, men ac­count for 73 per cent of adults who go miss­ing, 87 per cent of rough sleep­ers and 95 per cent of the prison pop­u­la­tion. And since 2007, sui­cide rates amongst men aged 45 to 59 have shot up by 40 per cent to make this the high­est risk de­mo­graphic. Truly a mid-life cri­sis. Why? It’s a ques­tion far too many be­reaved fam­i­lies and friends are left to pon­der in their grief. Even in 2018, men are trapped by stereo­type. Gen­der con­di­tion­ing takes place from birth when boys are dressed in blue, girls in pink. Boys are told to toughen up, cre­at­ing men who are un­com­fort­able show­ing ap­par­ent weak­ness or ad­mit­ting fail­ure. We put on a front, a fil­ter. We say we’re ‘fine, thanks’ even when we’re not. Com­par­i­son to an im­pos­si­ble ideal – the peer pres­sure to feel like you should be do­ing some­thing or to be some­thing you’re not – is a men­tal-health is­sue in it­self that can lead to de­pres­sive thoughts, low self-es­teem and anx­i­ety. Though so­ci­etal ex­pec­ta­tions are chang­ing, it’s still not in our cul­ture to talk openly about feel­ings and emo­tions so when we lose con­trol of them, we’re ill-equipped to deal with it. Many of the al­pha male traits that make men ‘men’ – tough­ness, com­pet­i­tive­ness, sto­icism – are the same traits that ‘un­make’ us. They leave us more vul­ner­a­ble to men­tal-health prob­lems but less likely to be open about it or to seek help be­fore it spi­rals out of con­trol. Might this partly ex­plain those sui­cide stats? Ask men about work, sport or Don­ald Trump’s lat­est fuck­wit­tery, and we’ll talk till clos­ing time. We’ve no is­sues in­ter­act­ing on a sur­face level. But be­neath the ban­ter and blus­ter? There is so much we do not talk about. Cer­tainly if the con­ver­sa­tion veers to­wards men­tal well­be­ing, things of­ten get awk­ward. We fall silent. And si­lence can be deadly. Sui­cide is, of course, the ex­treme but men­tal health is a spec­trum and we’re all on it. Even those peo­ple to whom you un­fairly com­pare your­self – whether on so­cial me­dia or in your so­cial cir­cle – have their own is­sues. Men­tal health does not dis­crim­i­nate, no-one is im­mune. It af­fects ev­ery Tom, Dick and Prince Harry. As the lat­ter said dur­ing a speech on World Men­tal Health Day in 2016, “Too of­ten we think men­tal-health prob­lems are things that hap­pen to other peo­ple, not us. But we will all ex­pe­ri­ence pres­sure on our men­tal health at some point dur­ing our lives. The more we ac­cept that, the bet­ter we can help each other. Catch­ing it and recog­nis­ing it early saves lives. It’s time we ended the shame around men­tal health – the fear of judg­ment that stops peo­ple talk­ing or get­ting help.” The sui­cide ear­lier this year of much-loved food writer/tv pre­sen­ter An­thony Bour­dain brought this is­sue back to the fore. We talked about it, we read ar­ti­cles about it, we saw dozens of posts on our time­lines with hash­tags such as #it­so­knot­to­beok and #check­on­al­ly­ourfriends. In the rush hour of life – the peak busy­ness of ca­reer or par­ent­hood – we can ne­glect to make time for our­selves when we need it, and for our friends when they need it. This was brought home to me very re­cently. I’m in a What­sapp group with 12 former work col­leagues called ‘The Sur­vivors’ – a band of broth­ers bound to­gether by hav­ing with­stood a toxic of­fice en­vi­ron­ment years ago from which sev­eral of us still bear men­tal scars to this day. Gen­er­ally speak­ing, the chat is dom­i­nated by the usual piss-tak­ing and meme-shar­ing but we also know from past shared ex­pe­ri­ence that we need to look out for each other. Re­cently we learned via a sub­set of the group that one of our num­ber has suf­fered a break­down. “Guys, I’m re­ally wor­ried about him,” read the text. “We need to rally round.” And so we are. In among the thread of con­ver­sa­tion that fol­lowed, this line stuck out. “It’s not men­tal health, it’s just health. Un­til we see men­tal health on a par with phys­i­cal health, the stigma won’t go away.” Ain’t that the truth. So I ask once again, are you OK? R U OK Day is on Septem­ber 13; ruok.org.au

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