Our PR Manager Andrew Hair shares his thoughts on men’s mental health. This latest blog is based on his own views and experiences and he is writing in a personal capacity.
Men’s mental health is a major health crisis facing the UK. The statistics paint a bleak picture; suicide is the number one killer for men in the UK under 351. Three-quarters of all people who kill themselves in the UK are men2, and male suicide resulted in 3,925 male deaths in 20202 that’s approximately 6.6% of all deaths in the UK3.
Despite the scale of the crisis, there is still a great deal of stigma surrounding male mental health. The figures show that 40% of men won’t talk about their mental health4. This suggests a culture of silence preventing men from seeking help. Men are also less likely to access psychological therapies than women. Only 36% of referrals to NHS talking therapy are for men, showing a clear gender divide5. To understand the issues surrounding male mental health, we need to consider the deeper structural roots of the problem.
The issues surrounding male mental health are systemic, complex, and stem from various cultural and societal factors, not least a prevailing culture of toxic masculinity. From a young age, boys are told not to cry when they hurt themselves in the playground. They are often rewarded for “being brave” in emotionally difficult situations, such as not crying at the doctor’s surgery when receiving an injection. These sentiments may be well-intentioned and motivated by the desire to comfort and provide reassurance. However, they socialise boys into repressing and hiding their emotions at a crucial stage of their emotional development. This isn’t harmless, and can have serious consequences for the ability of men to articulate and express their emotions in a healthy way as an adult.
This trend continues in adulthood with endless talk of telling people to “man up”, “pull themselves together”, and even “grow a pair” when men express emotion. These aren’t empty words; they have a deep psychological impact on men’s emotional wellness. The fact is that real men do cry. Crying is a healthy emotional response to a difficult situation, which should be normalised and embraced. It’s time we rethought our culturally conditioned approach to men crying.
Psychologists have established that emotional crying releases oxytocin and endogenous opioids, more commonly known as endorphins6. These are effectively the brain’s feel-good chemicals that can help ease the physical and emotional pain caused by a situation6.
Numerous studies link keeping your feelings “bottled up” as a repressive coping mechanism that can lead to poor physical and mental health6. The effects can include a less resilient immune system, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and mental health conditions6.
This repressive coping mechanism creates a psychological double-bind where it is not merely difficult for men to go through emotional pain, but the act of emotional expression is itself deeply painful7. Shakespeare’s King Lear put it well when he said
“You do me wrong to take me out o’ th’ grave.
Thou art a soul in bliss; but I am bound
Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears
Do scald like molten lead.”8
King Lear’s emotional pain of being “bound on a wheel of fire” is in turn exacerbated by the act of crying, his tears “scald like molten lead”. This provides a powerful illustration of a man in great pain who is unable to accept the legitimacy of his emotional response to the situation. In this sense, King Lear rejects not merely his own emotions but his authentic self. The agonising conflict between his misplaced sense of masculinity and the reality of his emotional response is plain for all to see.
However, the issue is not merely in the difficulties men experience articulating emotional pain, but the negative emotions they use as a coping mechanism. A significant body of clinical evidence suggests that men feel more comfortable expressing hostile emotions in response to emotional trauma, such as anger and aggression9. Men often feel unable to express feelings that display vulnerability and open openness, which may be perceived as weakness9. This maladaptive form of gendered emotional expression is deeply corrosive. It has fundamental implications for how men relate to their emotions and relationships with friends, loved ones, and romantic partners.
These behaviour patterns are deeply ingrained and something that men are socialised into. Things won’t change overnight, and there is no quick fix. The situation requires a cultural paradigm shift to deliver the kind of change needed. However, we can all do our bit to help change the narrative. Every time we say things like “don’t cry” and “just suck it up”, we are reinforcing a culture of toxic masculinity that needs to be challenged. Letting people know that it’s ok to feel that way and that opening up will be met with warmth, compassion, and understanding are crucial to creating a more positive conversation about male mental health.
The culture of toxic masculinity and taboo that surrounds men’s mental health isn’t just an abstract theoretical debate; it has real-world consequences.
Just over three years ago, my best friend Shane (not his real name) took his own life after a long and painful battle with drugs and alcohol. We had been friends since I was twelve-years-old. We had literally grown up together. His death was the greatest loss I have ever experienced in my adult life. The grief was, at times, almost unbearable. Never a day goes by when he doesn’t enter my thoughts. He lived fast and died young while he was still in his twenties. When I received a tearful phone call from his dad one fateful summer afternoon, I was very sad but not very surprised.
Shane had a difficult childhood. His relationship with his parents was at times strained and fractious. He grew up in Northern Ireland before moving to Jarrow in his early teens and was carrying a lot of repressed trauma from the harrowing events he witnessed as a child when he was just six years old. “The troubles” and the legacy of loyalist and republican paramilitary activity in the province left him with some very deep emotional scars from which he never truly healed.
As Shane grew older, he developed severe mental health problems, suffering from a combination of schizophrenia and paranoid psychosis. Like many people, he turned to drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism. Shane had a brilliant mind and was one of the brightest people I have ever known, but he never fulfilled his true potential. His mental health caused him many difficulties; he was frequently in and out of work, dropped out of university several times and even had minor brushes with the law over his drug consumption. He was always ashamed of his mental health problems and tried to hide them from the rest of the world. It was something he only shared with his closest friends, and even then, he did so with great reluctance.
I vividly remember one occasion when he was in a particularly bad place, and he sat and cried out of a mixture of anger, frustration, and despair. The look of shame in his eyes is something I’ll never forget. The school we both went to in Jarrow was rough; crying in public and showing emotions was just not something you did if you were a man. Those who did were mercilessly mocked, bullied, and ostracised. Being “a proper lad” meant keeping it all inside and putting on a tough exterior. As an adult, I have realised that this front is a sign of weakness. Strong men do cry, and they have the courage to connect with their emotions. Allowing yourself to be vulnerable is how you heal from emotional trauma. Sadly for Shane, this is something he was never able to do.
When he died, I lost not just a friend but a part of myself. Marcel Proust once memorably said, “one doesn’t grieve for others because they die; it is because one dies oneself”. Your identity and sense of self are formed by the significant relationships you have as a child and as an adult. This is certainly true with my relationship with him. Shane was so many things to me, friend, confidant, alter ego, surrogate brother and co-conspirator. Getting to know him in the way I did was one of the greatest privileges of my life. His loss is something that I have now learned to live with, but will never forget. As W.H. Auden once wrote:
“The stars are not wanted now, put out everyone;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun.
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.”10
For a long time, this was how it felt. Losing someone close to you can often create a powerful sense of existential futility and a feeling that the meaning has drained out of existence in a way that can never be replaced. It was hard to live in a world without Shane in it. It took over a year before I could even say his name, referring to him obliquely as “my friend” or “him”. The guilt that comes with grief brings up the inevitable time-worn clichés: “why didn’t I realise something was wrong?”, “if I’d been a better friend, he’d still been here”, “why didn’t I do something?”, “how could he do this to me?”. Over time I have learned that his suicide was his choice and is not something I can be held responsible for.
My grieving process was tough, and it’s not something I’d like to go through again. However, it has enabled me to grow as a person. As an adult, I realise the damaging effects toxic masculinity has had both on my mental health and the mental health of those I care about.
Emotions shouldn’t be gendered; crying is just as healthy and natural whether you are a man or a woman. Our emotions make us human and connecting with them is a sign of great strength, not weakness. It’s time we all realised that it’s ok for men not to be ok. The future of our health depends on it.
1. Men’s Mental Health Problem. The Scale of the Challenge. https://www.menshealthforum.org.uk/scale-challenge. Accessed July 2022
2. Office of National Statistics (ONS). Suicides in England and Wales: 2020 registrationshttps://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/deaths/bulletins/suicidesintheunitedkingdom/2020registrations. Accessed July 2022
3. Office of National Statistics (ONS) Deaths in the UK from 1990 to 2020 https://www.ons.gov.uk/aboutus/transparencyandgovernance/freedomofinformationfoi/deathsintheukfrom1990to2020. Accessed July 2022
4. Priory Group. Men’s Mental Health https://www.priorygroup.com/blog/40-of-men-wont-talk-to-anyone-about-their-mental-health#:~:text=77%25%20of%20men%20polled%20have,negative%20stigma%22%20on%20the%20is. Accessed July 2022
5. Mental Health.org Men’s Mental Health. https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/explore-mental-health/a-z-topics/men-and-mental-health. Accessed July 2022
6. Harvard Health Publishing. Is crying good for you? https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/is-crying-good-for-you-2021030122020. Accessed July 2022
7. Garssen B. Repression: finding our way in the maze of concepts. J Behav Med. 2007 Dec;30(6):471-81. doi: 10.1007/s10865-007-9122-7. Epub 2007 Jul 25.
8. The Tragedy of King Lear. Willian Shakespeare. https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=P57bDwAAQBAJ&pg=PA222&lpg=PA222&dq=%E2%80%9CYou+do+me+wrong+to+take+me+out+o%27+th%27+grave.+Thou+art+a+soul+in+bliss;+but+I+am+bound+Upon+a+wheel+of+fire,+that+mine+own+tears+Do+scald+like+molten+lead.%E2%80%9D&source=bl&ots=LhsYQtyJCy&sig=ACfU3U1oV6c_o54lLhYOkYG66g8ejInSLQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjF7I6AieL4AhUYQkEAHTBKBbMQ6AF6BAg6EAM#v=onepage&q=%E2%80%9CYou%20do%20me%20wrong%20to%20take%20me%20out%20o’%20th’%20grave.%20Thou%20art%20a%20soul%20in%20bliss%3B%20but%20I%20am%20bound%20Upon%20a%20wheel%20of%20fire%2C%20that%20mine%20own%20tears%20Do%20scald%20like%20molten%20lead.%E2%80%9D&f=false
9. Chaplin TM. Gender and Emotion Expression: A Developmental Contextual Perspective. Emot Rev. 2015 Jan;7(1):14-21. Accessed July 2022.
10. Funeral Blues. W.H. Auden https://allpoetry.com/Funeral-Blues. Accessed July 2022