When I first became aware of CALM, I was as shocked as most to hear that, according to 2013’s figures, male suicide accounts for 78% of all suicides in the UK (it is now 76%, and the single biggest killer of men aged under 45). As a man, this resonated. But CALM’s broader focus, in areas such as men’s mental health, depression and anxiety, are issues I’ve experienced personally and in some of the closest men in my life, which are largely unacknowledged and misunderstood.
Following CALM’s presence in the media, I couldn’t help but observe the challenges of their position; fighting a cause for men, in a world where equality for women is such a priority and shock statistics on women are in no shortage. The fact that in the UK, an average of two women per week are killed by a partner or ex-partner, or that up to 3 million women and girls experience rape, domestic violence, stalking, or other violence each year, shows the tip of an iceberg in the need to address major issues, affecting both sexes.
For men, the phrase “masculinity in crisis” is becoming more frequently heard in media and debate, with CALM being one of a few UK charities addressing men’s issues. Leading psychologists and experts continue to ponder and discuss where men are losing their way, finding identity in a society of changing gender roles, affecting anything from relationships to families, education and work. This is a growing area within the gender debate.
For women, at least in the UK, the initial fight for equal rights has become a fight against a number of societal issues and prejudices, such as sexual harassment, pay disparity and domestic abuse. Established feminist and women’s charities, like Refuge and Women’s Aid, continue to offer support for women, while campaigns like Everyday Sexism Project provide a voice and raise awareness of day-to-day harassment.
By and large, campaigns for each sex are undertaken separately, though there is a growing support for men to be more involved in gender equality. Projects like MenEngage, White Ribbon and The Great Men Campaign look to use men’s influence – often highly regarded in communities – to create positive change for women. These more inclusive campaigns encourage men to respect both women and themselves, acknowledging a close connection between the issues faced by both sexes, their societal pressures and subsequent behaviours.
An example of this connection can be seen in the pressures of a patriarchal society, where masculinity is dominant and valued so highly. These societal expectations are what feminists have frequently highlighted as the source of female prejudice, but which are often also the source of many problems faced by men. The expectations and pressures of what society demands that a man should be – successful, confident, dominant, the family “breadwinner” – can often result in feelings of inadequacy, leading to depression, stress, anxiety, and any number of mental health issues.
The general belief, that a man should be strong and stoic with his emotions, also creates an unwillingness to speak about his problems openly and constructively. Instead, attempting to deal with the expectation to “man up” and deal with it. But, in doing so, the problem isn’t removed, only suppressed. If not dealt with properly, it can elicit changes in behaviour which can either directly affect the sufferer – such as depression, suicide or self medication with alcohol or drugs; or indirectly affect others – such as anxiety-related anger, and violent behaviour.
There are psychological studies to suggest, for example, that when a man feels emasculated, or his masculinity feels challenged, he will instinctively overcompensate in the traits that society demands he should possess, such as control, dominance, aggressiveness, power and physical strength. Theoretically, it’s a way to save face in a society that values masculinity so highly. At best, these reactions create an environment which is not particularly pleasant for others to share. At worst, that environment can become physically or psychologically harmful, for the man in question and those surrounding him.
This is a significant point, which suggests that the connection between the wellbeing of both men and women can be found both at the outcome, as well as the root, of their problems. CALM’s focus on men’s issues, for example, aims to help men to become emotionally stable, comfortable in their masculinity and able to deal with their inner problems constructively. But in doing so, they are also making them less likely to address the insecurities of their masculinity by belittling, shouting abuse, emotionally manipulating, or physically or sexually abusing the women, men, or children in their lives.
These societal pressures on men, coupled with a scarcity of targeted communication and guidance on changing gender roles, has meant that many men have found it difficult to understand and deal with these changes. For decades now, men have been told in one ear, to be assertive, strong, competitive and controlling; while in the other, to be caring, considerate, passive and sensitive. Some feel confused. Some even feel antagonised. Perhaps some feel that their masculinity is being threatened and the only way to save face is to act in the way they do, consciously or otherwise.
Without taking the time to address and understand these issues, sections of the male population will not only suffer themselves, but may also continue to make society a difficult place for women. Of course, none of this can be used to justify such behaviour, but we have to realise that the solution of simply telling men to “man up and get over it” doesn’t seem to be working for anybody. Perhaps, we should be taking more time to understand why they find it so difficult. Why is it that so many men feel the need to continue to put women down? Why do so many feel the need to verbally, physically and sexually abuse? Do they feel threatened? If so – why? As campaigner, Jackson Katz asks – what’s up with men?
CALM is one of a number of bodies recognising the issues men are facing in society, while men’s role in gender equality is slowly being advocated. This is placing greater numbers on-side, to create a fairer society for all. I believe that this dialogue and collaboration between the sexes must continue to grow. We must encourage a greater understanding and communication between men’s and women’s groups, educating young boys and girls about respect for themselves and for the opposite sex; sharing insights on how men and women behave and interact; helping one another to understand their respective audiences and communicate their messages effectively. Through this collaborative approach, these issues can be tackled from all angles, providing support for both vulnerable women and men, and fighting together for an equal, fairer and greater society for everyone.
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