“How are you?”, or one of its many derivatives, is probably the most commonly asked question in the English language. A throw-away pleasantry usually responded to with the equally vacuous, “I’m fine”.
The problem is, for a lot of young men, that’s often just not true.
If you’ve ever read anything about mental health in the UK, you’ll probably already know this, but for the unaware, there is a statistic about young men that is, frankly, flabbergasting.
The biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK is suicide.
Even if you already knew, just really think about that for a moment. Despite all the horrible diseases we could contract, accidents we could be in or potential ways we could kill each other, we’re still killing ourselves more frequently than any of those things.
What’s more, of the 6,000+ British lives lost to suicide each year, nearly 75 per cent of those are male.
So what the hell is going on inside our heads that leads us to take the ultimate step with such frightening regularity? The answer is actually quite simply: nobody knows, because we stubbornly refuse to talk to about it.
As the suicide rates for men continue to climb, it’s fast becoming a crisis and, on World Suicide Prevention Day, the conversation has to start.
The Mental Health Foundation state that in England, “women are more likely than men to have common mental health problems” – almost three times as likely, according to some research.
But there’s no evidence to suggest depression hits men harder than women – we don’t get “manpressed”. What we do instead is bury our heads in the sand – or bottle, to be more accurate, as alcoholism rates for men in the UK are three times that of women.
Our depression is hidden away, and goes undiagnosed.
We’re not brought up to talk about our emotions, and when those emotions start to run away from us we’re not equipped to deal with it ourselves.
From the moment we’re born, young boys are described as being “big”, “strong” and “tough”. We’re told that “boys don’t cry” and we’re praised for “manning up” when we’re oh, so brave.
While the girls nurture Barbie, we’re encouraged to smash up Action Man. That may be a tad twee, but it’s a microcosm of the way our brains are formed to accept these roles from an early age.
As we get older, this constant barrage of affirmation when we show no fear begins to permeate into our very being.
By the time we reach puberty, and our brains are being pumped full of mind-bending hormones, it’s become a hard and fast rule that unless they are humorous or erotic, “feelings” are to be suppressed.
During those years our personalities go through numerous manifestations, but the one constant is that of emotional silence. And lo’, as we head towards adulthood, we’ve successfully neglected our emotional intellect all-but out of existence.
For many men, opening up about their feelings is the biggest social taboo. It’s what girls do, and there’s no bigger embarrassment for a “real man” than to be compared to a girl.
Once these men have their own children, they’ve locked that part of them up for good, and feel uncomfortable when their young son shows a sign of emotional weakness. The boy is chided, and the cycle continues.
We need to start bringing our young boys up in a world where, of course, we try and teach mental resilience, but we explain how a huge part of that is the ability and willingness to talk about it.
Whenever a man takes his own life it’s always followed by an outpouring of shock from those around him. “He seemed so happy all the time” is the predictable response. “I never knew he was depressed”, come the others. Well, had you ever thought to ask? Had you ever tried to go beyond the front put up by so many of us in this ever-changing world?
It’s time you did. It’s time we all did.
There are an untold number of young men out there struggling to adapt to a world where they don’t have to break-backs in the coal mines or charge at machine guns in Northern Europe.
The world doesn’t need tough guys anymore – it needs guys willing to tell the rest of us when they’re sad. Even more importantly, it needs guys willing to break the taboo, and ask how we’re all really feeling.
We accept “okay”, “alright” and “fine” as positive responses to that most simple of questions, but they’re really not. I’ve banned them in my house, and encourage you to do the same.
You might save someone’s life.
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