Our featured story on mental health is by George Bell. His work within the mental health space, is helping to normalise and de-stigmatise the conversation that surrounds mental health issues. His two main focuses are showing people that we all have mental health, as well as encouraging more men in particular to speak out. George has been featured in places such as The Huffington Post, Headspace, Time to Change and Stamp Out Stigma.
Getting more men talking about their mental health is an angle that I’ve written on heavily in the past, and it’s a great passion of mine. I unfortunately drew a bit of criticism in a previous piece from men who believed I was attacking their characters, saying that if they don’t open up, it makes them less of a man.
While this wasn’t my intention and while I believed I was doing a lot of good, I could see how some could misinterpret my words. Particularly when “men” and “talking about emotions” is such a highly sensitive subject.
So I want to be absolutely crystal clear from the outset in this refreshed version. Talking about your problems or not talking about your problems doesn’t make you any more or less of a man. What makes us men is our biological construction, and not the way that we carry ourselves.
I’m not encouraging men to speak out so that they can be more ‘manly’. I’m encouraging them to speak out because it could save their lives. I chose the title of my previous piece as ‘You can still be a man and be open about your mental health’ because unfortunately there still remains an outdated notion in society that men must be the strong breadwinners and bottle up their emotions.
This is changing, and has changed a great deal over the last few years alone, but this misconception still remains. And so we need to do what we can to continue to break these stigmas down. They aren’t only ridiculous, but they are dangerous too.
Sadly, there are plenty of facts and stats out there that support this notion. Suicide as a whole is an issue that desperately needs more support, as it is estimated that one person takes their own life every 40 seconds. But, the crisis is particularly prevalent among men.
Male suicide rates are five times higher than female rates in the Republic of Ireland, and three times higher in the UK. 75% of all UK suicides in 2017 were men. And, the statistic that I find most shocking of all, is that suicide remains the biggest killer of men under the age of 45 in the UK.
I have read that and written that so many times over the last couple of years, but it never gets any easier to digest it. I can feel myself becoming slightly emotional each and every time my eyes scan through that sentence.
I find it overwhelming that in a developed country full of advancements, and technology, and access to free health care, that the thing men should be most scared of is themselves. It’s not disease, or unpreventable accidents, or illnesses for which we have no cure. It is something which should be, theoretically, entirely preventable.
The problem becomes even more paradoxical when we must consider the fact that more women than men are diagnosed with depression. In fact, mental health disorders can be as much as 40% higher for women in the western world.
There are many theories as to why, despite this, the male suicide rate remains higher. Some suggest that it is down to the fact that men are more impulsive than women, or it’s down to the method of suicide itself. This theory holds weight, as more women than men attempt suicide.
Men and women are wired differently. That’s a biological fact, and one that can’t be ignored. But, I also believe that not talking about these issues remains a core part of the problem too.
Men simply aren’t as good at opening up about things as women are. And that’s not a sweeping generalisation. It’s just true. I speak not only from personal experience, but also from the countless talks, shows and stories I’ve seen or read covering the issue too.
Having a mental health issue is horrible, and it can leave you believing (wrongly) that you are weak and less of a human. And, when we take the stereotypical view that men need to be strong into account, you can see how this belief is an attack on this.
And so many men shut themselves off, adamant that they can get through it on their own. They may be successful with this. I know people who have suffered and recovered, and only opened up once they were back to fighting fit. But, the journey is a lot harder, and more dangerous, if you walk it on your own.
“A problem shared is a problem halved” as they say. Opening up doesn’t immediately solve your problems. It might also cause things to get worse in the short term, particularly if you open up to someone who doesn’t have the emotional intelligence to handle it in the right way. I’ve experienced both of these situations, and so I can sympathise.
But, it’s a case of trying and trying again. Once I learnt who I could talk with these things about and who would help me in the right way, these conversations became my bedrock. Being able to externalise my internal thoughts, feelings and emotions made it a great deal easier to deal with them.
Sometimes, people would offer great rational advice that my depression-ridden, irrational brain couldn’t see before. Sometimes, people would just sit there, listen, and tell me they had my back. I didn’t always need deep conversation. Sometimes I just needed a sounding board to bounce my crazy thoughts off.
Some conversations were incredibly difficult and awkward. Particularly those surrounding suicidal thoughts. But I can now comfortably say in recovery that being open about my mental health was the single best thing I did on my journey.
I built up a solid support network around me. I had a therapist, my close friends, family members, and a family friend who I could talk to. I would go to each with different conversations in mind, knowing each would offer different responses.
Some would be serious and professional. Others would be light-hearted. It wasn’t easy at first, but I learnt how to have these conversations in the right way with the right people. And, in turn, these people learnt how to handle me in the right way. They wouldn’t probe when they could see I wasn’t in the mood for talking.
We need to encourage more men to speak out. As I said earlier in this article, I’m not attacking anyone’s character here. I’m not assuming it’s a case of picking up a phone and telling everyone everything in one go. It’s a difficult process and one that will take patience and practice.
But what I am saying is that it’s worth it. No one should have to go through mental illness, or suicidal thoughts, alone. I spent far too long in self-imposed mental prison with these thoughts, and it was horrible. Once I began to open up on them, and I could see I was getting better, I realised that maybe things would turn out okay after all. And they have.
We also have a duty as humans to ask our family and friends how they’re doing too. I’ve made it a mission of mine to regularly ask friends how they are, and actually mean it. If I can tell something is up, I’ll dig deeper. Often, people want to talk, they just don’t know how to. Giving people that free, no-judgement space can really open the floodgates.
Male suicide is a crisis in the UK, and it’s a crisis in the wider world. It’s great that celebrities like Stormzy and Prince Harry are opening up on the wider stage, but not all men need to do this. You don’t need to post to Facebook and shout it from the rooftops. Just having a single, quiet conversation with your closest mate can make the world of difference.
Further links and information…