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Politics student adopts CALM’s motto: speak up

About the author:

“My name is Tom Vaughan, I’m 20 years old and a Politics student at the University of Bristol. Having experienced first-hand the effects of clinical depression and the social stigma that comes with it, men’s mental health is an area I take a passionate interest in.”

In February Tom spoke his mind for his university newspaper, Epigram, and CALM liked his thinking:

Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. Stan Collymore scored 251 goals in an 11-year professional football career. Harrison Ford played Indiana Jones and Han Solo, grossing over $5bn of film revenues during his career, and Winston Churchill led Britain through the Second World War. These are the kind of achievements which small boys dream about, and grown men look to for inspiration. Acts of bravado, fuelled by blood, sweat and tears, from heroes gruffly acknowledged and hailed as ‘real men’ over a Stella down The King’s Arms.

The fact that these four men have suffered from and very publicly talked about mental illness is apparently something that, as a society, we are less prepared to face. Perhaps their willingness to openly discuss deeply troubling problems doesn’t sit well with our idealized conception of the hard, stoic man; quietly battling his demons by playing darts and bleeding radiators? Today, these mythical, archaic strongmen are few and far between. Men are ever more likely to be sharing domestic responsibilities with their partners or knocking up a quick soufflé in the kitchen before they head out to the football. Yet, however keen we may be to move away from baseless gender stereotypes, men are still reticent to talk about mental health.

Of course, choosing to discuss any form of mental illness is a purely personal choice. To suggest that everyone suffering in silence, male or female, feels compelled to do so by social pressures would be unhelpful and insensitive. The figures, however, speak for themselves; suicide is the leading cause of death among UK males between 15 and 34 years old – responsible for more deaths than traffic accidents. Three out of every four UK suicides are male. In the 15-24 age group, the number of men killing themselves each year has doubled since 1971. However, women are far more often diagnosed with mental illnesses than men, and are approximately twice as likely to refer themselves to primary mental health services. Why, if men are at such great risk of suicide, are they slipping through the net?

Ally Fogg writes in The Guardian that ‘we tell boys not to cry, then wonder about male suicide’. He’s right. Silence and strength are far too often equated. From our misty-eyed delusion of the British ‘stiff upper lip’ to the (immensely irritating and bastardized beyond recognition) ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ poster, popular culture seems to prefer that we ‘don’t mention the war’. Cristina Odone displayed an impressive degree of ignorance in the Telegraph last year when she suggested that public men should never show themselves up as ‘blubbing big boys’, instead adopting a ‘Churchillian’ stoicism. That the man in question wrote extensively on his struggles with the ‘black dog’ of clinical depression was left conveniently unmentioned.

I’m not advocating some sort of mass male cry-fest; a cathartic orgy of brotherly love, bonding, and man-sized Kleenex in Trafalgar Square. Even without the social stigma attached, it’s likely that men would still be less comfortable broaching the subject of mental health than women. What we should recognize is that emotional openness among men must not be portrayed as a sign of weakness because when it comes to illnesses such as depression, bipolar disorder and others, silence can kill. Telling somebody that you’re struggling makes you no less of a man. From experience, I know that embarrassment and shame based on a misconceived definition of ‘masculinity’ can be huge obstacles in the often draining fight against the black dog.

So, how can the UK’s surging suicide rate amongst men be arrested? The National Mental Health Development Unit notes that the clearly defined national strategy for women’s mental health, which has been in place since 2003, has not seen a parallel project for men. This must change now. Let’s see a publicity campaign targeted at men, telling them that strength is in speaking up, not fading in silence. Let’s see talking therapies tailored to men which understand the potential difficulties in opening up. Let’s adapt our diagnostic tools so that often-dismissed symptoms of illness prevalent in men, such as anger or increased fatigue, can be recognised and acted upon.

The Department of Health calls for a ‘cultural change’ in the way society views women and mental health. Bravo, I say – but what about the men? Jane Powell, head of the excellent Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) notes that the expectation on men to keep quiet is ‘destructive, selfish, and plain nasty.’ The UK’s suicide epidemic is doubtless a problem which bridges the gender gap, but it disturbingly continues to disproportionately affect males. To have the courage to speak up about mental illness has nothing to do with masculinity, or a lack thereof; it is an immensely tough step to take which, for some, could be the difference between life and death.

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