Yes. There, that’s that dealt with. Next question?
Except of course, it’s not nearly as simple as that. If you’re a regular insideMAN reader, I have a hunch that like me, you’ll take it for granted that men should be allowed to feel anxious, low and depressed. But the reason I’m writing this blog, is that according to a new stereotype-busting campaign by Lynx, men are repeatedly asking Google the question in this headline. That suggests many people don’t think it’s OK for men to be depressed at all.
There’s a strange contradiction going on here. On the one hand, it’s never been more acceptable for men to open up about their feelings – in fact, the last 14 months have seen a sea-change in the cultural conversation around men’s mental health.
From the House of Commons holding its first Parliamentary debate on male suicide on International Men’s Day 2015; to princes William and Harry (who are, FYI, male, Royal and ex-military) recently launching their Heads Together mental health awareness campaign in partnership with male suicide prevention charity CALM; to the Southbank’s Being A Man festival; to the fact Lynx, about as mainstream a brand as you can get, have launched this campaign to breakdown male gender stereotypes.
If we’ve got everyone from MPs and Royalty, to high street male grooming brands all championing the idea that it’s OK for men to be open about their feelings, surely we’ve got this stiff-upper-lip thing licked? Right?
Except that isn’t the story that’s being told by the statistics. When I first started writing about men’s mental health around ten years ago, suicide was the biggest killer of men aged under 35. Since then the male suicide rate has in fact gone up, to the point where it is now the biggest killer of men aged under 50.
So what’s going on? I mean, how can the male suicide rate actually have risen, at exactly the same time as society has been telling men it’s more acceptable than ever for them to talk about their feelings?
One answer, of course, is that the expectations society places on men to be stoical, strong and silent, have profoundly deep roots that aren’t going to be easily eradicated overnight, no matter how high-profile the campaigns promoting a different kind of message about manhood. The idea that “real men” should provide and protect and damn well keep quiet about it, still has a powerful grip on both men and women.
But that said, I believe there now really is a greater acceptance of men expressing their fears and anxieties. The suicide debate in Parliament, the princes’ mental health campaign and Lynx’s focus on broader ways of being a man, may all be recent, but they are signs of a profound cultural shift – MPs, Royals and high street brands don’t get behind ideas that haven’t already got mainstream acceptance.
How does all this add up? Isn’t men’s fear of appearing weak, their tendency to bottle things up until it’s all too much to bear, the root cause of the high male suicide rate? If it’s easier than ever for men to talk and show their feelings, why is there still an epidemic of male suicide?
But maybe these aren’t the right questions – or at least, maybe they aren’t the only questions we need to be asking. You see, over the years I’ve been writing about men’s issues and after being immersed in the hundreds of personal stories we hear at insideMAN, I’ve come to believe there is another question that’s at least as important, but gets asked far less often. And that question is: “What’s driving male depression in the first place?”
Because it’s not just suicide that disproportionately affects men – there are a whole gamut of other disadvantages that also hit men hardest and that go right to the heart of a person’s wellbeing. From the fact that young men are now 35% less likely to go to university than young women, to the disproportionate impact of the recession on male-dominated industries, to the pain faced by men who are separated from their children, to the fact men make up 88% of those who sleep rough — anyone of these would have a negative impact on a person’s mental health, I know they would on mine.
What these issues also have in common, is that there’s a lack both of awareness that these are gendered issues affecting men, and of popular concern to address them. And it seems to me, that one crucial reason for this is society’s ingrained expectation that men must be strong and stoical – if a man faces disarray in his life, our almost instinctive reaction is that he should “man up” and fix his own problems.
I think it’s brilliant that Lynx and our culture as a whole are starting to challenge stereotypes about what it means to be a man. But if we’re serious about breaking down the expectations placed on men and improving male mental health, I think there are a some tough questions that we still need to ask ourselves. And I’m pretty sure Google won’t have the answers.
By Dan Bell
You can find out more about Lynx’s ‘Is it OK for guys?’ campaign here
If you need help or feel like you can’t be yourself, visit ditchthelabel.org