Joe, one of our service users, blogs to encourage men to open up about their mental health, sharing his father’s early life experiences in the Police and his own, more recent, struggles with anxiety.

It’s been almost a year since I accompanied my dad to a reunion for former members of Tactical Aid Group: the division of Greater Manchester Police where he spent the formative years of his adult life, dodging petrol bombs and whatever else the volatile socio-political climate of the early 1980s decided to throw at him. On an overcast December evening, a bustling Stockport pub paid host to a concourse of now middle-aged men, revelling in the company of their fellow erstwhile officers with whom they once shared a bond as close as brotherhood.

As my dad had once stated – ‘in TAG, you literally trusted your team with your life’. For most of the evening, the atmosphere was raucous, light-hearted, and positive – with the beer in full flow, and anecdotes of brave escapades spoken with pride. However, as the night wound down, the tone became more sombre; the inevitable effects of the violent nature of the job were uttered. ‘I wasn’t OK for a while’, ‘those riots still haunt me’, and perhaps most poignantly – ‘we didn’t talk about it’ were amongst the admissions from some of those present who, in their day, worked in markedly violent conditions as they tried to uphold the peace.

It is only recently that most men of my father’s generation have felt able to talk about their mental health, having been repressed for too long by the damaging fallacy that to acknowledge that one is struggling mentally, is a sign of failure – especially for a man. Therefore, as the guards were briefly lowered on this heady evening, there was something quite redemptive about men who were forced to be tough for too long, finally feeling comfortable to reveal their psychological bruises.

Whilst this occurrence certainly indicates that the dialogue about men’s mental health getting louder, the dismal reality is that too many men are still suffering in silence. Statistics show that three out of four (76%) of suicides are men; it is the biggest cause of fatality in men under thirty-five years old. Furthermore, although women are more likely to be diagnosed with common mental illnesses such as Anxiety and Depression, research suggests that men are less likely to seek the help that they need.

With regards to less common mental illness such as Schizophrenia and Personality Disorder, a greater public awareness and understanding of such conditions are still very much a work in progress, meaning that multitudes of people worldwide haven’t received the compassion and support that they deserve. It can be deduced that men have been more reluctant to talk about their difficulties with these disorders, thus lived incredibly isolated lives.

So why is it, that despite such harrowing and devastating statistics, males are, largely, still neglecting their mental health? To find the answers, you need not look any further than the primordial concept of masculinity which has been entrenched in society for time immemorial, thus creating warped, unfair, and downright unrealistic expectations of what it takes to be a man.

Whether consciously or unconsciously, many men (including myself) have followed such expectations and behaviours as if they were commandments. ‘Thou shalt not cry!’, ‘Thou shalt not talk about feelings!’, ‘Thou shalt man up!’ – that last one being particularly toxic as it insults men and women in equal measure: suggesting that displays of emotional pain denote weakness, while also teaching men that they don’t have the right to feel emotional pain.

As artist-cum-social commentator, and personal hero of mine, Grayson Perry, puts it: ‘Masculinity is to chase things and fight things…’. He contests that this precedent simply must be eradicated, and that men must be allowed more ‘emotional space’. I think you’d be hard-pushed to find a sound argument against doing away with Neolithic man as an aspirational figure, and instead encouraging men to be more comfortable in talking about their mental health. Personally, I believe that the reason the tired ideal of man as some unshakeable hunk of brawn who never reveals his emotions – let alone struggles with them, is still something some men strive for, is that they associate it with strength. Please consider these points:

  1. Being repressed and restricted by mental health problems does not make you strong; identifying and combating issues will only ever empower you.
  2. Mental health is physical health – the brain is an organ not an abstract concept; you would see a doctor about a broken leg, so pay your mind the same courtesy.
  3. If being a man is about being brave, be a fearless warrior: Defy your inhibitions and take pride in knowing that mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, nor is it even remotely emasculating. What’s more, fighting your own demons is no easy feat, but there is no reason that you won’t prevail triumphantly.

Despite possessing a good deal of insight, for a while, I too struggled to express the extent of how bad my own mental health was. Fortunately, I have an incredible support network with whom I felt able to share every gritty and terrifying detail of acute periods of Generalised Anxiety Disorder, since the diagnosis in 2010. However, it wasn’t until earlier this year, while in the process of overcoming a third bout of GAD, that I decided to be as vocal and thorough as I wanted to about the subject, when speaking to acquaintances, colleagues, and even (where appropriate) strangers. My motivation for doing so derives from my belief that we must simply adopt the same attitude towards a mental health condition as we would an injury such as a broken bone: A fractured tibia, for example, wouldn’t define a person and wouldn’t be anything to be ashamed of; the same applies for Depression, Anxiety, OCD, or any other form of mental illness. The only difference is the type of treatment needed. Therefore, when asked how I was doing, or where the opportunity to explain the nature of my illness arose, I would speak honestly and matter-of-factly about how Anxiety was affecting me. Not once did I receive a negative response, and on most occasions, the person I was speaking to would empathise with me and share that they too had suffered with some form of mental health complaint. What’s more, the majority of the people I spoke to were male. Not only does my experience highlight the incontestable fact that mental illness is both extremely common and completely normal, it also reveals how willing to talk about their mental health men can be when another man opens up to them.

In addition to the support of my friends and family, I overcame this period of Anxiety with a combination of regular exercise in the form of running, and Cognitive Behaviour Therapy with Self Help. Jon, my practitioner adopted a holistic approach which was directly concerned with tackling both the thoughts and thesymptoms of a panic attack.Thanks to those sessions, I am now more aware of my triggers. With this knowledge I feel better equipped to deal with panic attacks as they arise.

When it comes to mental health, conversation really is the key to progress. Therefore, we must ensure that everyone is encouraged to talk.
So, gentleman, put down your harmful reservations – the war against ‘not being manly’ is long over. Now is the time to live without the cruel inhibitions that used to imprison our gender, and which has taken far too many lives.

If you are struggling with your mental health, don’t ‘man up’, speak up.

For advice and support, call Self Help on 0161 226 3871.