What’s wrong with men? The devastating mental toll of ‘toxic masculinity’ culture
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
Thousands of men in the UK are struggling to cope with mental health issues
Below, Daniel Proverbs of Brothers In Arms.