Talking to a girlfriend of mine at the weekend, we were discussing male depression and mental health issues. When I asked her what type of man she wanted, she said a ‘real man’, a man that is a grown up and will take care of her, someone who doesn’t cave at the first sign of intimacy or problems and who will support her emotionally.
Interesting. Mostly because we then agreed that her view was likely pre-determined by an upbringing that taught her that “real men don’t cry”. That they are strong at all times, capable, protectors, bread winners etc. All passé stuff these days, you’d think, and certainly if I had asked my friend if she agreed that men shouldn’t express their feelings, she would shout me down from the rooftops. Interesting, then, that she still had an ingrained belief those men should perform the capable and solid role in her life. She acknowledged how difficult it must be for men when they experience emotional distress or depression, as our society is simply not open enough about these things for men to feel able to express themselves at the time they need to the most. We have come a long way, but there is still much further to go.
What was even more interesting was that she then resignedly asked me if I ever thought it would change. If there would ever be a time when men felt able to openly discuss their feelings of despair or upset, to ask for and get the help they needed. It occurred to me how much contradiction existed in our conversation.
Although it won’t happen overnight and there is a lot that needs to change, I like to think, no have to think, that it is possible and it will happen in my lifetime. Much has happened to change the position of women in our society over my lifetime (being a child of the 70s), and even more significant changes happened in the 50s and 60s. These changes in the way women work, their position in society, their expectations and even their legal rights have succeeded in changing society’s perception of women in general. Whilst some might not agree that all of the changes are for the better, that is not the point. It is the fact that a huge sea change in and by society has taken place that is the relevant factor here.
So if society can create and support such a change in the perceptions of women’s roles, can it not also do the same for attitudes and beliefs around male emotions, mental health, depression and suicide?
I believe it can and will. I have to; otherwise I cannot continue to bear the burden of my partner’s own suicide last year. Since that terrible day I have questioned myself, and others, over and over about what my role might have been in his decision to end his life. Why didn’t I notice the signs? Was there more I could have done as his girlfriend to help him, to enable him to feel that he could have confided in me that all was not well. He was in his early thirties and seemingly had everything to live for. Except there had always been an inherent sadness in him. I used to tease him that he didn’t smile enough – because when he did it would light up his face and my heart would skip more than one beat every time. But sadly my unwavering support and love was not enough on its own to sustain him and I realise now, nearly a year later, that it was not Jack that did that to himself but the terrible, often misunderstood and stigmatised issue of depression.
I recently read “The Suicidal Mind” by Edwin S Shneidman. There is one passage in particular that’s helped me to realise that Jack didn’t do what he did to punish me. He also didn’t wake up one day and think to himself, I’m going to piss off everyone who knows and cares about me today by killing myself. In reality his despair and pain were so great, his “psycache”, as the author calls it, was so overwhelming that those close to him were blinkered out – we simply didn’t figure in his decision that day. It wasn’t a selfish or mean decision, it was purely one of extreme and all encompassing pain, a wish for it to just stop and tragically for those of us left behind, we simply feel powerless and heartbroken that we couldn’t have done something, anything, to change things for him.
But how can we prevent ourselves from being powerless again in the future. How can we ensure that every man in our lives knows that we accept, cherish and understand them in good times and bad? That we want them to feel able to tell us (or anyone else) what is going on for them, to seek help at the most crucial time and not be thought less of?
By announcing it loud and proud; by telling our partners, friends, sons, brothers and husbands that depression and suicide knows no cultural, religious or gender boundaries. That we are all just human beings doing the best we can on our journeys through the world. That occasionally we all need help and support and that actually real men do cry.
So why don’t we all send the men in our lives a text, an email, a postcard or go crazy and speak to them face to face and simply say ‘it’s ok for you to feel exactly as you feel, today and every day’. Perhaps we need a campaign by women, for men. A day every year when women do something as a collective to raise awareness of male suicide and depression. It might sound simple, but what if we all wore a purple t shirt that day – an outward sign that so many of us know or have known a man in our lives who has experienced depression. I think society would be surprised by how many purple t shirts there would be walking along the street and perhaps this would encourage other men to reach out for help.
As women, we need to challenge men’s own perceptions of what they think the opposite sex think about their emotions, and how it is acceptable for them to express them. After all, asking for help is a sign of bravery, not one of weakness. Depression doesn’t give a damn who you are or what side of the gender fence you sit on and frankly neither do I. If you are in pain, you should live in a society which enables you to feel comfortable asking for help , fullstop.