Men & Mental Health
I’ve done many talks on mental health over the years and many times I have been asked the question…
Why can’t men talk about their mental health? Or why don’t men talk about how they feel?
Ironically, I am usually the guest speaker, a man, talking about my own experiences with my mental health.
I bristle a little when I get the question, because I become frustrated at the story we seem to tell ourselves that men can’t talk about how they feel or that men are unable to. I find the narrative a little defeatist, “men just can’t talk about how they feel”
I also know it’s untrue because I, a man, have grown to feel much more able to openly talk about how I feel, and before that, become aware of how I feel in the first place. I too, have been in many spaces where I have seen men learn or become aware of their feelings, find the words to express how they feel. I’ve seen it countless times so the narrative that men :”just can’t” I know to be false.
Yet, I know too that the experience of many men is a real difficulty in opening up, in either not wanting to, or not knowing how to talk or how to feel, or where to start. I know too the frustration of friends or partners when their male friend/partner is either unwilling or unable to share something that they may be experiencing. And I know too, that Suicide is the biggest cause of death for men under the age of 45 in the UK. That statistic speaks for itself, whilst I might bristle at the question – there’s a reason the question is being asked.
I could write lengthily on the societal and cultural reasons why many men have felt unable to talk about their mental health, or don’t know how to. It touches on history, biology, traditions and more – yet I’m not sure the soul searching will help in this instance. Instead I can offer a view and an insight that after 5 years of walking in the world of mental health, I believe to be true.
Men are no less able to feel their feelings, feel emotions or express how they feel than anyone else. I believe men have less safe spaces to do so. It’s not men we need to “fix” it’s the environment we create for men.
My experience as a man, both in the workplace, at school, in social settings with friends is one where I fear judgement. I’ve grown up in a culture of bravado and name-calling which has been labelled as toxic masculinity. I’ve grown up where if your friends take the piss out of you, it’s their way of telling you they like you and that you are accepted. If your mate points and laughs at the t-shirt you’re wearing, they probably want one too.
Or, in the workplace where men might default to talking about football or worse make slightly inappropriate comments about women – it’s really their way of trying to connect and get on the same level with you.
Ultimately what surrounds much of this bravado is a desire to fit in and not to be judged, to be accepted. Therefore, when it comes to opening up about mental health, to sharing a feeling at work, whether stress, anxiety, gratitude or joy – there’s an inherent risk there, a deep risk that goes back years. To when that man told their friend on the rugby team they liked what they were wearing and got called queer, or when the group of boys willed you on to do something but you said no and got called a “pussy”
Extrapolate out these stories, this banter, the jokes and take them into a workplace setting, or a family setting and apply those experiences to a man who on some level wants to talk about how he might feel and therein lies the difficulty. The fear of being judged, of being left out, of being hurt.
No matter who you are or how you identify, talking about mental health requires you to feel safe to do so. That safety is based on your relationship, the setting, the environment, the time, the place, the boundaries and the explicit or implicit rules. Every Human must feel safe to talk about their mental health. There are varying degrees of vulnerability when talking about mental health, depending on the level of stress or intensity attached to the content of what one might be sharing. Therefore, with vulnerability, safety is required so whoever it is sharing may feel safe to be vulnerable without those inherent fears attached.
Men are not less able to talk about their mental health. Men don’t feel safe to. That’s my view.
In order for more men to begin opening up about their mental health and beginning to explore their emotional side, we must create more environments that feel safe enough for men to be able to start to take those risks, to learn a new language, to share, to say something. That something could be the first time someone says “I feel stressed” or the first time someone reflects on their relationship. We have to create enough safety for those awkward, clunky, misplaced, jumbly sentences.
In our workplaces this is crucial, or else we limit men to their role and we limit Men’s ability to emotionally engage with others in the workplace. If we don’t create more safe spaces for men, then we don’t let Men engage with their mental health and in turn we don’t let men learn a new language of their emotions. If we don’t do this, then men may feel less likely to be able to engage in conversations on race, privilege, gender and more.
I don’t need to remind anyone that there are more men in leadership positions, so without doing this, we have a lot of men with a lot of power and a lot of influence feeling unable to share or experience their own emotions. I find this quite frightening and quite dangerous. When I look at our Government I see lots of boys in suits, who to me seem lost, scared and out of touch with their own emotions.
Let’s begin by taking a look at our environment and asking; is this a safe environment for men to talk about their mental health in? These are the kind of questions we have been rightly asking ourselves surrounding race and gender issues in the workplace. When it comes to mens mental health, we can do the same.
If you do one thing, then this inquiry is a good place to start and if you are a man reading this, you could perhaps ask yourself where you feel safe to start thinking or reflecting on how you’re feeling?
Men in leadership positions can pave the way for other men to feel comfortable talking about how they feel by sharing their own experiences. If you are a CEO or a Leader in a business, you can start by sharing some of your own experiences with mental health at a company level. You can imbue the organisation with a sense of safety, that there’s no judgement here, that mental health is human, normal and not something that performance will be measured against or jobs will be lost over. If you’re a male Leader, you can make a difference to the experiences of many other Men.
In my experience, men respond differently in environments that aren’t intently designed for talking. One to one, face to face conversations can be more difficult. Whereas a walk, or a phone call, a conversation with a little less intimacy can feel more safe. Staring into the whites of someone’s eyes can be quite intense, chasing the environment to feel private and enclosed can be very helpful. Or where there’s an activity as the focus and the talking is secondary. Like watching something, playing something or doing something else – then the talking can follow.
Journaling too can be a great exercise for men. It’s where I started. Nobody sees your Journal and it is a private space for you to reflect and share how you feel that you do not have to share with anybody else. A Journal can be a great space to start to write down how you are feeling and you don’t have to have the pressure of sharing it with anyone, it can be just for you.
If you’re a man connecting with a man, then often the question how are you, will be met with a limited response. Yet if you share your own experience with a friend, it might give them permission to share back, rather than the direct questioning. Women though, in my experience, seem to have more luck in asking men how they are feeling.
These are just a few of my experiences of what works in the environments we can create for men to feel safe enough to begin exploring their mental health. I’m not here to provide all the answers though and what I’d encourage anyone to do reading this is to reflect on the above question; Where might I feel safe as a man to open up about my mental health? If we start there, I believe we might make some progress. Who knows you might end up asking your Dad to go out for a bike ride. You might turn that next 1:1 to a walk on the phone instead of a Zoom call. You might start sharing more of your emotions as a male leader.
Finally, I believe it can be hard to show compassion for men, white men in particular, given that men receive more unearned privileges than anyone else in our world. And many of the men in power around the world can seem evil and unjust. Yet I hope the actions of a minority don’t hold us back from being compassionate to the majority of good men in our world.