What’s wrong with men? The dev­as­tat­ing men­tal toll of ‘toxic mas­culin­ity’ cul­ture

Sunday Herald - - HEALTH - BY KARIN GOOD­WIN The Sa­mar­i­tans can be con­tacted on 116 123.

AREVOLUTION is needed in how we think about men’s men­tal health, help­ing them break free from “stiff up­per lip, strait­jacket think­ing” that pre­vents them from show­ing their emo­tions or ask­ing for help with psy­cho­log­i­cal prob­lems be­cause they see it as a sign of weak­ness. With fig­ures show­ing that 12 men a day com­mit sui­cide in the UK, the ur­gent call by cam­paign­ers – which comes ahead of World Men­tal Health Day this Tues­day – is aimed at sav­ing lives by halt­ing the fall­out from “toxic mas­culin­ity” that tells men to “man up” by sup­press­ing emo­tional dis­tress in­stead of tack­ling it head on.

Next Sat­ur­day lead­ing ac­tors, film­mak­ers, play­wrights and men­tal health ad­vo­cates will at­tempt to scotch the dam­ag­ing myth that si­lence equals strength in a pro­grammed se­ries of films and talks – part of the Scot­tish Men­tal Health Arts and Film Fes­ti­val – that ad­dress the is­sue. The day-long event will ex­am­ine the emo­tional self-harm men are in­flict­ing on their psy­ches as a re­sult of long­stand­ing so­cial con­di­tion­ing which has left them with­out the skills needed to look af­ter their men­tal well­be­ing.

Al­though more women than men re­port suf­fer­ing from de­pres­sion, three out of four peo­ple who com­mit sui­cide across the UK are men. It is the big­gest cause of death for men aged be­low 45. In Scot­land, there were 728 sui­cides reg­is­tered in 2016, com­pared to 672 in 2015 and the sui­cide rate for men was more than 2.5 times that of women.

Richard War­den, film cu­ra­tor of the fes­ti­val, claimed the sub­mis­sions re­ceived by this year’s fes­ti­val showed the is­sue was cry­ing out for at­ten­tion. “The in­crease in film sub­mis­sions ad­dress­ing men’s men­tal health was ex­tra­or­di­nary for our 2017 edi­tion,” he said.

Daniel Proverbs, who set up Broth­ers in Arms in June this year – Scot­land’s first men­tal health sup­port group specif­i­cally tar­geted at 16 to 45-yearold men – who will be speak­ing at the fes­ti­val, said the chal­lenge was to reach “the thou­sands of men hid­ing in plain sight”, who were un­happy and strug­gling to cope but un­able to con­fide in any­one.

“Of­ten fam­ily and friends have no idea that any­thing is wrong un­til a body is dis­cov­ered,” he added. “This is about the guy sit­ting op­po­site you on the train, check­ing his phone, who ap­pears per­fectly fine. It’s about all of us be­ing will­ing to say, ‘It’s ok, you are not alone’.”

Proverbs claimed the in­spi­ra­tion for Broth­ers in Arms came from watch­ing an in­ter­view with for­mer foot­ballers Chris Unsworth, Ja­son Dunford, Steve Wal­ters and Andy Wood­ward, who had been sex­u­ally abused. In the in­ter­view the men talk openly about the hor­rific ex­pe­ri­ences they faced, weep and hug each other for com­fort.

How­ever, the “broth­er­ship” which urges men to get talk­ing when the go­ing gets tough is also largely in­flu­enced by Proverbs’ per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence. Af­ter decades of sup­press­ing the pain of a vi­o­lent and dif­fi­cult child­hood he had a break­down, aged 40, shortly af­ter the birth of his first child. Faced with “the enor­mity of hav­ing some­one other than your­self to take care of” he con­sid­ered sui­cide but with the help of his wife was even­tu­ally pre­scribed med­i­ca­tion and went to ther­apy where he learned how to talk about his feel­ings prop­erly for the first time.

Lead­ing clas­si­cal ac­tor Mark Lock­yer has also used his per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence of men­tal ill­ness to cre­ate the the­atre show Liv­ing With The Lights On – which shows him end­ing up home­less and in prison. It will be per­formed in Ed­in­burgh on Fri­day next week as part of the fes­ti­val.

“Some men have been taught never to show emo­tions,” he said. “I know that if I don’t work hard at shar­ing what I’m feel­ing it will even­tu­ally lead to de­pres­sion. But some men be­cause of many fac­tors – en­vi­ron­ment, up­bring­ing, class – will find that dif­fi­cult. Fear of judg­ment is such a hur­dle and when you are feel­ing vul­ner­a­ble it’s so hard to be brave and say I’m not cop­ing.”

How­ever, he in­sisted that stay­ing silent about be­ing in pain led to frus­tra­tion and de­spair. “For some they are so caught in the trap of feel­ing un­able to let go that the in­ter­nal anger leads to sui­cide. ‘We had no idea he was so un­happy’. How many times do we hear that af­ter a tragedy?” He be­lieves it is crit­i­cal that the stigma and fear is ad­dressed to al­low every­one to re­cover and “live happy lives”.

Mariem Omari, who on Fri­day will pre­mier her own play about male men­tal health, One Mis­sis­sippi, said many men she in­ter­viewed had at­tempted sui­cide as the re­sult of child­hood trauma.

One man, whose fa­ther was a drill sergeant, “blurted out” that he had al­ways been fright­ened of ev­ery­thing. “He could hardly mouth the words,” she said. “They came out side­ways. He didn’t know how to ar­tic­u­late that. Our so­ci­ety has a lot to an­swer for in terms of the dam­ag­ing gen­der norms that we cre­ate. It even af­fects how we talk about af­fec­tion. As a boy, if you go to give a pal a hug peo­ple will give you grief. There’s a per­cep­tion that men don’t do that.”

Stud­ies show boys are less likely to be so­cialised in a way that helps them ex­press emo­tions other than anger, with re­search sug­gest­ing moth­ers are more likely to use emo­tional words and emo­tional con­tent when speak­ing with their four-year-old daugh­ters than with their four-year-old sons. Omari added: “We are all re­spon­si­ble for en­sur­ing that we don’t shut men down.”

Award-win­ning film­maker Dun­can Cowles, who is cur­rently mak­ing his first fea­ture-length doc­u­men­tary called Silent Men about the dif­fi­cul­ties men have in open­ing up, said stay­ing silent can kill. “The ex­pec­ta­tions that so­ci­ety have on men to be strong and tough are quite poi­sonous at times. It’s im­por­tant we do some­thing, as the nega­tive con­se­quences of not, are shock­ing.”

This is about the guy sit­ting op­po­site you on the train, check­ing his phone, who ap­pears per­fectly fine

Pho­to­graph: Nik Shu­li­ahin/ Un­splash

Thou­sands of men in the UK are strug­gling to cope with men­tal health is­sues

Be­low, Daniel Proverbs of Broth­ers In Arms.

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