Trigger warning: this piece discusses themes of suicide.
3,682 men took their lives in 2020. An average of almost 71 per week, or 10 per day.
For many, it’s hard to fathom just how problematic our society is for men. Conversely, many men, like myself, have become desensitised to the cultural issues that contribute to this. Unfortunately, men being desensitised plays further into the cyclical issues of toxic masculinity.
Society's damaging expectations of traditional gender roles are a major contribution to why men are far less likely to discuss or seek help for their mental health problems.It has been normalised that men should present as strong, dominant and in control.
Without having safe spaces that encourage opening up around others, most men have an ingrained notion that they should ‘man up’ by emotionally isolating and internalising their feelings. This notion that it’s weak for men to emote could not be further from the truth. In reality, the act of defying these cultural practices, admitting our feelings, and seeking support, are all signs of emotional strength.
But here’s the figurative million-dollar question: what even is the culture of toxic masculinity?
This concept refers to the norms that are associated with harm to both society and to men themselves, such as traditional stereotypes of misogyny and homophobia, which either promote or incite the repression of emotions and the sense of self-reliance. These are proven to correlate with increased psychological problems such as depression, increased stress, and can even lead to substance abuse.
Now that was quite a heavy expositional info dump, but the gist of the matter is that toxic masculinity can lead to various dangerous interactions including bullying between male peers, interpersonal/domestic violence, the shunning of emotional connections, and more…
The most upsetting thing about this culture is that it quite simply does not need to exist.There is nothing that necessitates people to adhere to the culture.
Many people either don’t believe that this culture exists, or they refuse to acknowledge how damaging and restrictive it is, to which I reply with a simple question: when was the last time that you remember someone who identifies as male visibly crying?
Men infrequently feel comfortable in expressing any emotional vulnerability. Statistically, they are more likely to use potentially harmful coping methods such as drugs or alcohol, a trap that I myself previously fell into.
Far too often we assume that a smile expressed on someone's face constitutes them actually being happy, but the way we perceive people’s emotions and mental health often doesn’t accurately align with reality. Having worked in male-dominated industries, I have seen first-hand just how rarely my colleagues would emote sadness or guilt, all due to fear of judgement.
According to the World Health Organization, a quarter of people are affected by mental health problems or neurological disorders, yet men disproportionately account for roughly three-quarters of UK suicides.
There’s a tragic irony that such a common issue is so infrequently discussed… In 2016, a survey by Men’s Health Week found that amongst employed men who were experiencing mental health concerns, 46% would be embarrassed/ashamed to tell their employer, and 52% would be concerned about taking time off work.
The act of sharing genuine emotion has rarely been celebrated over the centuries, with many women being dismissed and labelled as hysteric. Despite this, women still express to a far greater degree than men, which may indicate just why male suicides are historically so much higher than female suicides.
In 2017, after suffering through my A-Levels, I accepted a job offer that necessitated me moving away to a new area, roughly 120 miles from my family, my friends, and (most upsettingly) my dog. As many of you may imagine, I struggled to acclimate to this different environment.
It felt impossible to express the homesickness that I was feeling to my colleagues, with insurmountable anxiety about how they would react. Because of the banter culture - bordering on bullying - prevalent within that industry, I was honestly worried about whether people would weaponise my state against me.
As the years went on, I became increasingly resistant to opening up about any other problems or emotions. This defensive front continued through one of my lowest points, when my long-term partner left me in an emotionally traumatised state and with a destroyed sense of self-confidence, not least because, in my mind at that time, I felt embarrassed by how she had treated me and as though her actions emasculated me.
In hindsight, this unconscious bias, feeling ‘lesser’ through such a fragile sense of masculinity, is yet another example of how subtle toxic masculinity can be and yet have such profoundly restrictive implications.
After the break-up, I took the initiative to see my GP, start prescription antidepressants and attend sessions with a therapist and, yet because of my isolation from friends and family, I was still struggling.
Although the finer details now elude my mind, I still recall that it took months of feeling weighed down by the constant pressure of seeming toxically ‘masculine’ before I was able to admit anything was wrong to a lot of people. All the while I kept my emotions bottled up.
In the end, there came a point where I dropped my guard and let some things slip to a colleague on the factory shop floor. At first, I was mortified that I had dropped the façade and let anything slip, but they asked me some questions and took the time to quietly listen to me, even when I descended into rambling.
I was indescribably relieved by how much empathy they showed me and, despite feeling nervous to discuss my mental health, they could empathise with my situation and echoed similar experiences of suffering in silence. By the end of our conversation, I was so grateful for their support and the insightful advice that they offered me, including lessons learned from their own past.
It doesn’t always take a grand display of support to help build a stronger sense of community, sometimes, all it takes is some empathy being shown during a quiet conversation.
I held a presentation for International Men’s Day in November 2019. I discussed my personal experiences of mental health issues, challenging the stigma surrounding this topic, and boosting awareness for the various support networks that are available online, locally and nationally.
Generally speaking, our culture doesn’t promote much discussion about mental health. So, I decided to be the change that I wanted to see and use said presentation to smash the stigma (where have I heard that before?) and open up a proper dialogue about mental health experiences.
One of my major focuses was explaining how being vulnerable in a society that expects men to be tough, has been the most important part of my journey, despite my initial reluctance to let my guard down.
Within the years following that speech, I have observed a striking and uplifting amount of positive changes in the way that we collectively interact with these topics, which I legitimately would never have anticipated.
It is worth acknowledging that many marginalised groups like the LGBT+ and BAME communities are also disproportionately at risk. We collectively still have a long way to go in creating spaces that enable everyone to voice how they are feeling and to access support.
Since the aforementioned speech in 2019, I have had numerous experiences that helped me to realise the magnitude of progress that is being made, including attending events with Papyrus, seeing many businesses improve their policies to support better wellbeing, and general exposure to both the news and social media.
With society visibly making great strides to promote healthy conversations about suicide and mental health, I cannot help but feel an unanticipated sense of optimism that I hope our readers can share in!
(Inspiration: Why men need to talk)
Voices of Hope wants you to know that you do not have to do this alone. Click here to ‘find help’ - it’s not weak to speak!