RECLAIM YOUR MIND
The division between mind and body is illusory, and both are similarly vulnerable to breakdown. Yet many men still mistake illness for weakness. Author Matt Haig shares his personal account and explains why we urgently need to speak up about anxiety
Author Matt Haig opens up about anxiety and why it’s time to shed our guilt
When I was 24 years old, I embarked on the strangest, most terrifying experience of my life. I became ill. I had been ill before, but never like this. I had a panic attack that lasted a week – but the words “panic attack” don’t quite cover it. I had no control over my thoughts or my racing heart. It was a total breakdown, and I hadn’t seen it coming because I had been ignoring the signs and masking my feelings with alcohol. Now, the dam had broken. My mind was in a mess that I couldn’t escape, and I very nearly threw myself off a cliff. It wasn’t because I wanted to die, but because I was suddenly unable to go on living under the weight of so much pain. It was like holding on to an emotional barbell stacked with too many weights. I could hardly stand.
This was the beginning of three years of depression and anxiety. Three years of confusion. Of keeping secrets from my slowly diminishing circle of friends. Of struggling to articulate how I felt, even to my doctors. Much later, I realised that one of the reasons why it took me so long to recover was stigma. The stigma of society, but also self-stigma. I couldn’t accept what was happening to me. I couldn’t accept the labels. I couldn’t accept the thought of telling my friends about it.
I wasn’t just depressed. I was depressed about being depressed. The knowledge that I wouldn’t be able, in the grip of this illness, to hold down a nine-to-five job felt like a judgement. It was a vicious circle, made worse by how I felt like less of a man. What kind of man can’t go to a supermarket without having a panic attack? What kind of man has an existential crisis while choosing which socks to wear?
An ill kind. Anyone with a mind can have an illness of that mind. I felt very lost and very alone. But I wasn’t alone. What was happening to me was common, and so was the stigma I was feeling. If you are a man and under the age of 50, the most dangerous part of your own body – the part that is most likely to kill you – is your own brain.
Boys Don’t Cry
For all the progress we are making around mental health, for all the celebrities and sports stars willing to open up about their struggles with anxiety and depression, people – men, in particular – still find it difficult to talk about their own problems. Men are less likely to be diagnosed with a mental health condition than women, but we are more likely to die from one.
Men are less likely to get the right treatment than women, or even to ask for it (only 36% of psychological therapy referrals, for instance, are men, according to the Mental Health Forum). Instead, we, as a gender, are more likely to “selfmedicate” in an attempt to remedy our problems. Men are nearly three times more likely than women to become dependent on alcohol. We are also more likely to use illegal drugs – and to die from them. When you consider that three out of four suicides are men, you start to realise there is a bit of a problem.
If there is a stigma around mental health, it is partly because we don’t fully understand it. While men are perfectly comfortable when it comes to discussing a torn hamstring or even chest pain, we have historically found it hard to talk about our feelings.
When I was at school, most of the common insults – after the ones calling you something genitalia-related – were those that related to your state of mind: “psycho”, “schizo”, “div” and, of course, “mental”. As in: “You’re mental!” Which is a – ahem – crazy thing to say, if you think about it. Of course you’re mental. I’m mental. Everything we feel is mental. Our perception of the entire world is mental. To think is to be mental. To not be mental would be to exist as a plant, or a rock, or a fan of Sean Penn’s fiction writing.
Questioning someone’s mental state is still the go-to insult method in the Twittersphere – think of the far right’s continual use of “autistic screeching” as a political put-down. Add all this to the way that men are still expected to be silent and stoic in the face of emotion and pain – to “man up” and get on with it. Recently, I tweeted about how ridiculous it is that we, as men, are conditioned to feel ashamed about crying. “Men cry,” I wrote. “They have tear ducts and lacrimal glands just like other human beings. A man crying is no different from a woman crying. It’s natural. Gender roles are toxic when they don’t even allow an outlet for pain. Cry, men. Cry your hearts out.” Many people liked it, but others took issue with what I had written. One American man, with an AK-47 as his profile picture, said there are only three times a man should cry: if the Chicago Cubs win the World Series, if your wife dies, or if you get caught in a bear trap. In other words, if you are unmarried, don’t like baseball and aren’t presently stuck in a bear trap, then you have no excuse
to cry at all. This is an extreme example, but it shows the problem that exists for men and mental health.
Men can feel judged by other men for showing their emotions. So, when those emotions become ill emotions, they can be reluctant to talk about them, even if those feelings threaten their life. When I had my breakdown, I ended up losing friends, not because they weren’t there for me but because I didn’t give them a chance to be there for me. I stopped returning their phone calls. I no longer went out. But I could never quite tell them why, beyond saying that my head was “a bit of a mess”. That was the equivalent of someone on fire saying they feel “a bit warm at the moment”.
There isn’t a specific type of person who can get depression. Women get it. Men get it. Astronauts have had it. World leaders have had it. Film stars. Soldiers. Billionaires. Rugby players. Even the Rock has had depression. There is nothing unmanly about mental illness. When you look at the suicide rates, it is clear that people are dying needlessly because of stigma – because people tell themselves they are wrong to feel the things they feel.
How do we fix this? Talking helps, of course. Talk is contagious. The more we talk about our problems, the more others will talk about theirs. But part of the problem is that we see mental illness as something alien and “other”. So much stigma would vanish if we realised that mental health and physical health are the same thing. The divide we have created between physical and mental health is an arbitrary one.
René Descartes is largely to blame for this distinction. The philosopher best known for saying, “I think, therefore I am,” also believed that minds and bodies were separate. In the 1640s, he suggested that the body works like an unthinking machine and the mind, in contrast, is non-material. And you don’t need to have a degree in philosophy to have a similar view. Most of us have subconsciously inherited it. That’s one reason why we have separate hospitals for mental health and divide the world of work between white-collar “skilled” jobs and bluecollar “manual” jobs.
But think about it. What does mental health mean? Even if our view of mental health starts and ends with the brain, the brain is a physical thing. Even our thoughts, at the micro level, are physical processes. Besides, thoughts aren’t just the products of brains.
As the cognitive scientist Guy Claxton writes in his book Intelligence in the Flesh, “The body, the gut, the senses, the immune system, the lymphatic system, are so instantaneously and so complicatedly interacting with the brain that you can’t draw a line across the neck and say, ‘Above the line it’s smart and below the line it’s menial’… We do not have bodies. We are bodies.”
Then there’s the issue of the “little brain” – a network of 100 million neurons (nerve cells) in our stomach and gut. OK, so that figure is nowhere near the 85 billion neurons in our “first brain”, but it’s not to be sniffed at. One hundred million neurons are roughly the amount that a hamster has in its head.
For me, the way back to health was in understanding that the brain was part of the body. This helped for two reasons. First, it led me to appreciate that it wasn’t my fault. Seeing illness as a judgement of character is ridiculous and damaging. We can’t control what is thrown at us, just how we deal with it. If anything, I feel stronger for having had this experience.
The second reason it helped was that it led me to physical exercise – specifically, running, strength training and yoga – which was a crucial part of my recovery. It’s very hard to have a panic attack when you’re running, because your heart is already racing, and it’s meant to be. Physical exercise is well known to have a positive impact on all kinds of mental conditions, from depression to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. It worked for me.
More importantly, I became able to talk and write about what I was feeling with no shame. And this is the key. I allowed myself to be a different kind of man. A man who could feel ill. A man who could fail. A man who could cry. I began, in short, to be a human being. Matt Haig is the author of the numberone bestselling memoir Reasons to Stay Alive. His latest book, Notes on a Nervous Planet (Canongate), is out now. Haig is backing Time to Change’s “In Your Corner” campaign, which encourages men to step in if they notice their mate is acting differently. For more information, visit: time-to- change.org.uk
“There’s nothing unmanly about depression – even the Rock experienced it”