6th February marked Time To Talk Day – offering an important reminder for all of us that it’s good to talk.
Talk about what you may ask? Well, Time To Talk is a crucial campaign which works to challenge the stigma around mental health and encourage those in need to talk to a friend, family member, loved one or health professional.
This is a critical campaign and could not have come at a more crucial time. For regardless of our individual circumstances, there’s always a time when we’re facing difficulties and could do with talking to someone about our worries.
This is however especially true for those struggling with their mental health.
Today, 1 in 4 people across the UK experience mental health issues each and every year. However, despite the prevalence of conditions such as anxiety, depression and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), many people are instead suffering in silence.
In fact, you may not know, but in England:
- 90% of people who attempt/die by suicide have a mental health condition, but are not all diagnosed
- Only 28% people of people who complete suicide have been in contact with mental health services in the year prior to their death
(Source: MHFA England)
These shocking figures show that many people are sadly not getting the help they need.
What’s more, if we look at the figures around mental health more closely, we can also see great disparities between men and women.
Research has shown that women are roughly twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with a common mental health problem such as anxiety or depression. However, suicide is the leading cause of death for men under the age of 45 in the UK. Whilst more females attempt suicide than males, more men die by suicide than women (75%/25%).
As we can see by these statistics, the rate of death by male suicide is staggering. But what is the cause behind such high rates of suicide? And how we can address this issue?
Well firstly, we must continue to battle stigma against mental health across the board. What’s more, if we look at how men are affected, experts have in fact expressed how men often struggle to seek support and speak to loved ones about their mental health.
Sadly, but not surprisingly, one of the potential reasons is: “social expectations and traditional gender roles”:
For men, societal expectations about how men “should” behave and what masculinity is includes the expectation that men… display what have traditionally been perceived as masculine traits like strength, stoicism, dominance, and control.
While wanting to feel, and feeling, strong and in control are not inherently negative things, some research suggests that a reliance on these traditional ideals as what it means to be “a man” may negatively impact men’s mental health.
The research on this suggests that behaving in a way that conforms to these expectations, specifically expectations of self-reliance, and power over others is associated with increased distress and poorer mental health. Some research also suggests that men who feel as though they are unable [to] speak openly about emotions may be less able to recognise symptoms of mental health problems in themselves, and less likely to reach out for support.
(Source: Mental Health Foundation, 2020)
Unfortunately, traditional conceptions of “what it is to be a man” based around rigid, toxic gender-based stereotypes of strength and domination pose a barrier to men accessing the help they need. However, this sadly comes as no surprise.
If we look at traditional norms around gender roles, the resulting socio-cultural expectations not only dictate what women would “be/do/say” and therefore harm women, but they also create a sense of toxic masculinity with harms men too.
This is because toxic masculinity seeks to dominate women and treats/defines them as the “fairer/weaker sex”. In turn, the problem this poses for men is that it defines masculinity around ideas of strength, power, control and domination.
Within this framework, expressing emotion, crying and showing empathy are then seen as signs of “weakness” and “un-manliness.
Crucially, nourishing a sense of “positive masculinity” in children, for example, tries to break down these negative norms and stereotypes from the offset. However, as we look to build more inclusive societies, we also need to consider that gender binaries are becoming increasingly outdated.
Discussions around sexuality and gender have evolved in recent years and for one, not everyone self-identifies as male or female. Therefore, the term “positive masculinity” can also be exclusionary as it pushes outdated conversations around gender binaries, cis-normativity and heteronormativity.
In reality, what we need to encourage everyone to be able to live freely as themselves, regardless of their gender or sexual identity. This starts with recognising and breaking down negative language and stereotypes around gender identity.
We essentially need to rid ourselves of toxic, rigid and outdated gender-based stereotypes.
In a previous blog, I wrote about sexism towards women in the English language. Many of these examples can be reversed to show how stereotypes of men also play out.
With that in mind, and with now being #TimeToTalk, here are four examples of how the same gender-based norms affect men, preaching a sense of toxic masculinity which discourages men from showing emotion and therefore reaching out during times of need.
Take a look and spread the counter-narrative!
1. “Real men don’t cry”
We’re all human. We all have emotions. Bottling up emotions is not healthy and reaching out of help is actually a sign of strength.
In fact, not only is crying a perfectly normal natural way of “letting it all out”, but it also has physical benefits on your mind and body! Yes, crying releases oxytocin and endorphins which help relieve mental and physical pain and boost your mood, whilst also ridding the body of toxins which in turn reduces stress.
Crying is a perfectly normal bodily function and response to emotional distress. What shouldn’t be accepted as normal is sexism and sexist language. Women cry, men cry. Whoever needs to cry should let it out!
So, forget the gender stereotypes – they help no one! If you’re feeling down: reach out to a friend, family member or trusted individual and cry on their shoulder if you need to.
No one will think any less of you. If they do, please show them this blog, educate them and find a supportive inner circle!
Please, do not bottle it all up. It helps no one – not you, not other men, not your sisters in humanity and certainly not the younger generations who learn from our behaviour.
2. “Grow a pair”
Oh dear – frustrated sigh! This is a classic example of sexism embedding itself into the English language, demonising women and enforcing a specific language onto men.
Yes, just as “being a p***y” falsely equates weakness with female genitalia and “being female”, language around (having) male genitalia (“having (big) b***s”), likewise implies “masculinity” and strength.
Not only is this incredibly sexist to women, but it’s also completely toxic for men, not to mention also firmly stuck in a world of (cis-based) gender binaries.
Men and women are equal individuals. We’re all equal! We all our own people in a world which can’t (and mustn’t) be divided into gender and sexual binaries. We’re individuals who must develop their own sense of self and self-worth.
We must not be dominated by toxic outdated gender-based stereotypes. We should instead shed society of these sexist stereotypes.
Furthermore, once again, let’s shout it loudly and clearly: showing emotion, suffering from a mental illness or wanting to cry are not signs of weakness.
So, let’s forget about genitalia and gender, and instead work on ourselves – looking after ourselves, loving ourselves and doing what we need to keep emotionally (and physically) healthy!
3. “Man up”
Again, here is another example of shutting down emotional displays.
Telling someone to “man up” is essentially saying that they need to not show emotion, as to do so is a display of showing “weakness”. It’s once again equating showing emotion with weakness and “femininity”, as opposed to being “strong” with “masculinity” – i.e. being a “true”/ “better” male.
This is obviously complete rubbish. It’s sexist and based on stereotypes seeped in toxic masculinity. It’s both offensive to women and harmful to men as we should never be stereotyped in such a way.
We need to turn this around. We need to build safe spaces to talk and confide in one another – including men. Your gender should not define how you should/shouldn’t deal with complex emotional and mental health issues. End of.
Show your emotions, open up when you’re feeling down and reach out.
4. “Be a man”
It’s 2020. We’ve moved beyond gender and sexual binaries.
I’ve already highlighted how outdated binary stereotypes around “masculinity” and “femininity” are harmful to men and women, as they impose a set of normalised expectations and behaviours around “masculine strength” vs. “feminine weakness”.
However, let’s look at this a bit more deeply.
Not everyone identifies as male or female. Many people identify as gender fluid or non-binary. What’s more, if we look a bit more closely at the above notion of male “strength” we can see how it’s often used in homophobic or transphobic discourse.
This ie because it dictates a certain normalised set of behaviours within a strict binary: if you show emotion then you’re “effeminate”, or “just being the woman you are” and vice versa.
Please, for the sake of everyone, let’s shed these narrow conceptions of gender and sexual identity. No one needs to “be a man” or be “more manly”.
We need to be the people we are and feel comfortable and confident in that. This includes expressing our emotions, confiding in trusted individuals and seeking help when we need it.
We’ve come so far, yet still have a way to go. Remember: you are you. You’re not a stereotype to be fitted into a neat little box.
Finally, one final point I’d like to stress is that battling mental illness shows such inner strength. It takes courage, a willingness to be open and trust in others. It lays bare our fears and vulnerabilities. We all have these, just to different degrees and with different levels of self-awareness.
So, whoever you are, wherever you are: please don’t suffer in silence and don’t let age-old toxic stereotypes try to define who you are nor stop you from getting help.
If you’re struggling with your mental health, please do reach out for support. Please, don’t let yourself be defined by outdated traditions. You are you – an individual with your own identity, experiences and beliefs – and you deserve the love and support you need. We all do. It may not be easy, but there is help out there.
The first thing to do is to build a circle of loved ones who you trust and can confide in, or speak to a support service like The Samaritans, before seeking professional help.
And to each and every one of us, regardless of our health: reaching out, expressing ourselves and not bottling it up is healthy. Remember, as the saying goes: “a problem shared is a problem halved”. Relieve the burden, talk to others and express yourself – not an outdated and silencing gender-based stereotype.
For more information about the Time to Talk campaign, click here.
Below is a list of services who can offer crucial mental health support, please do reach out if you’re in need:
A list of additional organisations can be also be found here.