BRAIN GAME

IN 2018, MALE MEN­TAL HEALTH IS BIG BUSI­NESS. ARE THE PI­O­NEERS OF PAID-FOR PSY­CHO­LOG­I­CAL FIT­NESS HERE TO MAKE US HAP­PIER? OR JUST MORE ANX­IOUS?

Esquire Middle East - - IN THIS ISSUE - BY KEVIN BRAD­DOCK

Male men­tal health is big busi­ness. Are peo­ple get­ting bet­ter or just more anx­ious?

Or was it in­stead em­blem­atic of the next trend in well­ness? That after wor­ry­ing about our sleep, our ex­er­cise, our carbs, our calo­ries, our drink­ing, our snack­ing, our meat, our veg­eta­bles, the prove­nance of our meat and veg­eta­bles, the num­ber of steps we’ve taken in a day, how much time we spend sit­ting and/or stand­ing and if our iphones are killing us (prob­a­bly while we sleep), the next step in mind­ful­ness is our ac­tual minds. And, if so, what does it mean? How do you even “do” men­tal health any­way?

The is­sue of men­tal health has never been more prom­i­nent. We’ve seen the head­lines that sui­cide is one of the lead­ing killers of men un­der 45. We may know too that men re­port sig­nif­i­cantly lower life sat­is­fac­tion than women. That last year in the UK there was a re­port that de­scribed male lone­li­ness as “a silent epi­demic”. From ad­verts on buses urg­ing us to “Ask for help” by tex­ting a num­ber, to celebri­ties from Princes Wil­liam and Harry to rap­per Stor­mzy open­ing up about de­pres­sion, to the high-pro­file sui­cides of chef An­thony Bour­dain and the DJ Avicii to plenty of low-pro­file ones too, fes­s­ing up to low mo­ments has shifted up the agenda. The pre­vail­ing mood of rap mu­sic has moved from brag­gartry to in­se­cu­rity: Drake’s lyrics are cries for help, while Kanye West, Ken­drick Lamar and J Cole have all talked about de­pres­sion. Men­tal ill­ness may be dan­ger­ously close to be­com­ing a badge of hon­our: the web­site bando.com sold out of AED150 gold name­plate neck­laces with the words “Anx­i­ety” and “De­pres­sion” in a hip italic font. Their man­u­fac­turer says its in­ten­tion is to “open a di­a­logue”.

Of course some stigma still re­mains. Men are fa­mously ter­ri­ble at talk­ing about any­thing emo­tional. But we can con­fi­dently say it’s not like it was in our fa­thers’ days. And def­i­nitely not like it was in our fa­thers’ fa­thers’ days. Con­cern over men­tal well­be­ing has pro­duced a slightly more palat­able term than #Doyouevenmentalhealthbro?

The new buzz­word is “vul­ner­a­bil­ity” and it is ev­ery­where. In 2010, the US aca­demic Brené Brown gave a Ted talk ti­tled “The Power of Vul­ner­a­bil­ity” that is by turns mov­ing, con­vinc­ing and syrupy in the lan­guage of Cal­i­for­nian re­treats and Sil­i­con Val­ley start-ups. Riff­ing on hid­ing shame and pain be­hind façades, Brown con­tends: “There is an­other way: to let our­selves be seen, deeply seen, vul­ner­a­bly seen. To love with our whole hearts, even though there is no guar­an­tee. To prac­tice grat­i­tude and joy… to be­lieve that we’re enough”.

Through its web­site, pod­casts, blogs and Youtube chan­nel, the men’s “me­dia plat­form” Rebel Wis­dom, founded last year by film-maker

David Fuller and med­i­ta­tion teacher Alexan­der Beiner, in­vites men to “get vul­ner­a­ble”, among other things. Its new age-y lit­er­a­ture states: “In to­day’s world, for men to be vul­ner­a­ble and speak the truth is an act of re­bel­lion. What if you just told the truth?”

In other words, if you have doubts, wor­ries and ag­o­nies, talk about them. Drop the de­fault strong-and-silent mode and re­badge your vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties as strengths: let them be seen.

Sounds fair enough, doesn’t it?

And 36 mil­lion views sug­gests Brené Brown, for one, is onto some­thing. “One of the prob­lems is that in the last 10 years or so, the world hasn’t re­ally been in­ter­ested in the psy­chol­ogy of gen­der,” the psy­chother­a­pist Nick Duf­fell told The Guardian in 2018. “What we’ve been in­ter­ested in are transgender is­sues and free choice and pro­nouns and gen­der as a so­cial con­struct and abuses of power. But one of the things I’ve been work­ing with is how pow­er­less men often feel in the pri­vate sphere. Men are very un­skilled when it comes to re­la­tion­ships and deal­ing with their emo­tions. We need to train them to be bet­ter at vul­ner­a­bil­ity, bet­ter at re­lat­ing — and when they be­gin to do that, the power they de­velop is more authen­tic.”

Ad­mit­ting vul­ner­a­bil­ity, re­lat­ing, be­ing more authen­tic… it sounds like a pos­i­tive step for­ward when pre­sented by au­thor­i­ties at Ted talks, on phi­los­o­phy-based Youtube channels and by psy­chother­a­pists in news­pa­pers. But what does it ac­tu­ally mean? Where do you start?

IN FACT VUL­NER­A­BIL­ITY — or #vul­ner­a­bil­ity — has spawned its own startup cul­ture. Sanc­tus in Lon­don’s Shored­itch has a mis­sion to “change per­cep­tions of men­tal health”. If you visit one of its Sto­ries Live events, pitched some­where be­tween an AA meet­ing, a group ther­apy work­shop and an open mic night, a phrase you will hear a lot is, “Thanks for be­ing vul­ner­a­ble”.

I at­tended a ses­sion in the sum­mer, in a stu­dio owned by Ustwo, the video

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