The trend to write about male mental health is something I feel conflicted about. On the one hand, I am thrilled the topic has rocketed to the fore and all the “de-stigmatization” that this encouraged. But, as with most things that shoot into public consciousness, I worry that this trend will be short-lived, and consequently risk diminishing its impact.
As a society, we have become increasingly conscious of the problem of male mental health. It is undeniable that there has been a commendable development towards creating awareness of the social issues that surround us, yet also characteristic of our generation is the damaging tendency to jump on the bandwagon without really stopping to think in any depth about the issue at hand. In large part, this tendency has been perpetuated by social media. Take Facebook’s recent “It’s ok to not be ok” campaign. The movement involved posting a selfie, accompanied with a copy and pasted caption revealing the harrowing statistics of male suicide: “The single biggest killer of men under 45 is suicide. In 2016, there were 5668 recorded in Great Britain. Of these, 75% were male.” While the campaign sought to publicize the fatal effects of mental health problems amongst men, I feel that opening up this highly stigmatized conversation is not enough. Yes, it is an important step, but it is by no means the solution – it does not constitute a job-well-done.
Having an online sphere at our fingertips brings an integral responsibility to think about what we share online. Now that the discussion has been initiated, it is crucial for us not to undermine our own progress through mindless ‘sharing’. Furthermore, it is important to acknowledge how this action provides a platform for certain issues but can be an incredibly selective action. For example, while social media helps to remove stigma surrounding “fashionable” mental health disorders, such as anxiety and depression, less acknowledged mental health disorders are left censored in the shadows. I say this not to discredit the pain and struggle in anxiety and depression, but rather to point to our (very historical) tendency to condone some illnesses while condemning others.
Moreover not only does the act of ‘sharing’ risk eliciting a sense of complacency – I have shared a post, and now my work here is done. There is also an irony in this act, because yes, whilst the dangers of social media to our health and wellbeing are commonly accepted, our understanding of and reflection on the connection is limited. The consumption of others’ lives that social media enables puts pressure on young adults to try to replicate the idealized lives of celebrities, or draw comparisons to their peers – both of which are unattainable realities. This is not because you cannot replicate the lifestyle of another, or match a friend, but rather social media allows us to present a highly refracted and enhanced version of our lives that is just not so. Social media is the double edged sword that helps to proliferate awareness on mental health issues, all the while directly contributing to the issues themselves.
Our next step should be to carefully consider how we curate our feeds and how we perceive the feeds of others in order to make sure that we take responsibility for our own education about mental health. What is the impact of re-posting a viral campaign, or posting generic images? Does simply using a hashtag or reposting a brief mental health related post trivialize the issue? Does a lack of accompanying relevant information oversimplify the complexities of the various mental health concerns we all may face? Should we strive to include resources for support or other information, so that we are actually helping the next person down the feed?
Change has transpired in recent years in terms of both our attitudes towards and the treatment of men suffering from mental health problems. Moving from the hackneyed and damaging idea of “boys don’t cry”, all the way to a portrait of Daniel Craig, an icon of masculinity, photographed with tears rolling down his cheeks: there has been an enormous swing in what it means to “be a man.” Craig’s portrayal, albeit hollywoodized, does not negate his masculinity, but rather demonstrates his brave vulnerability. This is the message we need to be sending to young adults: that emotions are not emasculating, but are universally felt, regardless of gender. More personally, I have seen firsthand how hard it is for my male friends look me in the eye and have the courage to tell me what is going on inside their head. It is crucial to stop making the cultural associations between displaying emotion and weakness. Ultimately, it is our responsibility to end the calamitous rhetoric that men ought to be strong and powerful, and that honest and open sharing would emasculate them.
On a more structural level, the United Kingdom has recently appointed a Suicide Prevention Minister, Jackie Doyle-Price, to address the biggest cause of death for men under the age of forty-five. In the U.K., men are three times more likely than women to end their own lives, and, due to these statistics, our focus is primarily shifting towards mitigating suicide. The issue with this approach, however, is that in looking at the end result as if it were the problem in an of itself, you ignore the many steps that lead to it. We should not be looking to avoid male suicide alone, but looking to bring an end to the issues that cause it. Furthermore, since the U.K. does not have a minister specifically for mental health, the appointment of Doyle-Price is somewhat flawed in its bracketing of suicide and mental illness together. This move could potentially prove counterproductive in the destigmatization of other mental health issues that may not typically culminate in depressive thoughts and suicide.
So, what is the right response? Simply suggesting people need to seek proper medical treatment is problematic. The Mental Health Foundation (2016) estimates that 75% of people diagnosed in the UK with a mental health problem do not receive any form of treatment. This is in part symptomatic of the financial and logistical problems of the public NHS (National Health Service), particularly considering private healthcare is out of reach for the vast majority.
Talk is not enough: I find myself actively frustrated by the lip service paid to mental health when it is rarely accompanied by any tangible action. The phrase “actions speak louder than words” springs to mind, and holds particularly true to men’s mental health. We must go beyond the Facebook campaigns and conversations. We must lobby our MPs, our government, and our universities to do better by our men. We must educate ourselves on the structural layers of the problem. We must hold those around us accountable, and criticize quips about a man being “girly” or a “pussy” when we hear them. And, while we must always cultivate open and non-judgemental environments for boys and men to speak, solely discussing the issues will not solve the problem by itself. While unintentional, campaigns like “it’s ok not to be ok” risk reducing mental health issues to something that can be resolved purely through the act of ‘sharing.’