As a man in my 20s, I Am lucky enough to be part of the generation that feels less stigma around talking about mental health, even as I was coming through school there began to be more initiatives popping up along the lines of ‘it’s ok to talk’ or ‘we can help’.
There was an increased emphasis on the importance of counsellors.
The idea was to make it feel like nobody was alone.
The issue with this is that it often feels unbalanced, the authority very much sits with the teachers or counsellors and as we age, therapists, this most likely continues to mean that a sense of anxiety is created for people looking for an outlet.
In situations like these it’s difficult to see how someone could be sympathetic or even relate to your issues.
As a result, we turn to those closest to us, most of the time we look to our friends.
Amongst friends the playing field can feel more level, but as guys we tend to downplay our feelings and the feelings of others, not on purpose but just as a result of socialisation.
An acquaintance I made recently suffered the loss of his older sister and this hit him hard.
He was depressed, prescribed antidepressants and was even trying to micro dose magic mushrooms to feel better.
He had not long been released from hospital after a recent suicide attempt, the worst part being that other than the scars on his arms and legs you would have never known, he always appeared to be the happiest person in the room and not only that is one of the coolest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting, and other than when we spoke about his past i never saw him without a smile on his face.
He was trying his hardest to remain happy and a productive member of the workforce whilst bottling up a torrent of emotions waiting to escape. One day at work on a stressful shift he eventually broke down, without giving himself time to rest his mind and body chose a time for him.
After this I went to talk to him to see if there was anything I could do. In typical male fashion I immediately opened with a joke about the manager on shift, which in my defence was funny, however I now realise it’s not what he needed. In a later conversation he spoke about how he felt men on a whole don’t attribute enough meaning to the feelings of their friends.
This isn’t to say we are nasty, heartless creatures that ignore feelings, it’s that we tend to let them go unnoticed in the hopes of saving face, in spite of what the person may need. Sometimes they really do just need a friend to listen and to be there for them without trying to come up with a solution to make them immediately feel better. This culture of jokes and general lack of seriousness means it’s still hugely difficult for men in particular to talk about their mental health.
Speaking from experience, I know how hard it can be to take that initial step towards getting help. Other than the past year of my life, my own mental health issues seemed to be something completely closed off to the rest of the world. I viewed it as my own internal struggle and to vocalise it was to place that burden upon others, I was suffering alone.
Events in my childhood and several others throughout my teenage years saw me shut up like fort Knox.
Even now my best friend, who I’ve known for almost 10years, still jokes that he knows nothing about me. Which is probably true, however a shift in my mindset came when my closest friends began to open up, they voiced their issues, aired them out and left them behind them, starting to work towards their overarching goal of being mentally healthy and achieving a good life.
My best friend has recently started a society at Leeds university for male survivors of sexual assault and abuse, furthering the help available for men going through traditionally ignored and extremely difficult situations.
It just so happens that I was immensely lucky to have been surrounded by friends that understood the importance of mental health.
So, as I battled with my own mental health and eventually reached out I had my friends there to support me.
Therefore, the question remains, how do we make it so that men feel comfortable asking for and receiving help.
When looking at statistics a gloomy picture is painted of the state in which Men’s mental health is in.
Three times as many men commit suicide compared to women.
Men also tend to report lower levels of life satisfaction than women and only 36% of NHS talking therapies referrals are for men.
These statistics only show those diagnosed and the reported figures. Many cases will fly under the radar.
The original argument runs as follows: there are traditional gender roles, the ideas of men and women that you are socialised to believe from a young age.
Both of which are damaging. For men society expects, or at least traditionally it expects a certain level of dominance, strength, and control. The inference is then said to be that it becomes hard for men to reach out for help and open up whilst trying to maintain this mask of societal masculinity, which to some degree is true.
But what is masculinity in today’s world?
We have increasing awareness of the damages that traditional gender stereotypes inflict, and gender is widely accepted as a very fluid social construct.
So, in modern society where masculinity is no longer judged off of archaic concepts, what is stopping men from speaking out, and asking for help? Well, I believe from my own experiences and the experiences of my peers it’s something called “lad culture”, or “joke culture”.
The idea that everything is a laugh and a joke, and nothing is off limits, this isn’t to say the culture is inherently bad and it definitely does have its moments, but its effects can also be damaging as you cross that line from funny to toxic.
You need not scroll far to see countless posts or TikTok’s completely disregarding not only their own mental health struggles as jokes but also their own mortality and that of others.
This shift from not being able to talk about mental health to a complete desensitisation to it is a fault of social media.
It’s also a luxury afforded to those who have no experience of mental health issues or mental illness. But as you could imagine there are many people who look at those posts and become greatly distressed and upset.
Unfortunately, it’s already gone so far as to reverse the work done in schools throughout the 2010s and early 2000s.
There are examples as extreme as to joke about everything from OCD, PTSD, BPD, ADHD and even schizophrenia.
As children and young adults growing up in an era where we have access to all of human knowledge at our fingertips there comes a certain level of responsibility, to be careful with the content we create and assess its impacts before spreading it wider than we could possibly fathom. It’s no wonder then that so many have become desensitised to things they know nothing about.
This herd immunity to male mental health is extremely damaging, a friend of mine who as a child suffered from severe depression, jokes about his scars, pretending they are barcodes or saying he looks like a zebra.
This is a toxic behaviour he uses to avoid confronting his true feelings on the matter, pushing his mental health aside in favour of ignorance. There are some ways in which humour could have been helpful in coaxing him out of his shell and making him feel comfortable with opening up but as result of “lad culture” he has voiced the state of his mental health in such a way that completely shuts him off from receiving help.
Voicing the concerns, you have is only the first step, by putting up that barrier of humour you prevent yourself from being reached. It’s like caging away a wild animal and waiting for it to break free to wreak havoc.
But the true issues arise as these jokes, disregarding mental health entirely as nothing more than commonplace, are broadcast to millions of people via social media. It’s completely ok and actually beneficial to establish and normalise that mental health affects us all.
But this shouldn’t lead to a complete lack of understanding amongst the population of its severity.
Suicide is the leading killer of men under the age of 45, at one point there was 18 suicides a day in the UK. In order to better demonstrate the effect “lad culture” has had on young men I have compiled a few short questions and to compare I’ve also asked young women as well.
The questions are as follows:
- When was the last time you can remember personally making a Joke about mental health? (Your own or someone else’s) / do you feel entirely comfortable with this?
- How do you feel with regards to mental health on a whole and how does that compare with your own mental health?
- What has been the context of some of the jokes you’ve made in the past?
- Do you find it hard to speak about your mental health?
This is because I believe that even though we have established that mental health is a key social issue and we have also normalised speaking openly about it, we have generated a culture in which it is then impossible to ask for the help we need.
After speaking with a number of people it became apparent that this issue ran deeper than expected. Everyone I spoke to had made and most likely will continue to make jokes about mental health, in fact a lot of people I asked found it laughable that the question was necessary.
The difference here was that within the context of close friends these jokes were normal, most likely because there was a huge push generationally to be more open and honest about how we feel.
As well as this I found that within the right social sphere these jokes could be beneficial, sometimes even if made at the expense of others they could see the funny side of an otherwise painful situation. So, this isn’t to say that humour is a bad thing, it can definitely be a helpful tool in making someone feel comfortable opening up about their feelings.
The issues arise when these jokes go too far and become self-detrimental and actually cause people to ignore their mental health rather than trying to work through it. I’m not trying to say that a culture of laughs and fun is a bad thing, not at all. What I am saying however is that as men we could stand to place a lot more meaning on our own feelings and the feelings of others.
So, the jokes amongst friends don’t have to stop, we just have to know and educate ourselves when enough is enough.
However, as I delved deeper into the psychology of men and women, it became apparent that there was some sort of detachment for men, there was a clear disconnect between what they felt and what was presented to them online.
On the most part, the people I spoke to would try to take all mental health concerns seriously, however, there did emerge some outliers.
People who thought it funny to joke about things they had no experience of at the expense of those that live it daily. It was this that then confirmed my concerns, there were several men I spoke to that found it extremely difficult to open up about their feelings and this was due to joke culture that surrounds men’s mental health.
However what was worse was that there also seemed to be this sense of openness is good, vulnerability is bad. These are two completely different things, the vast discourse between openness and vulnerability is dizzying. This is the main issue and the main focus point we should concentrate on working on.
The lad culture that engulfs mental health is damaging in the same sense that misinformation is damaging, it makes people confused as to what really constitutes acceptable behaviour.
For the most part it goes unnoticed, but there are those who suffer daily with jokes that have no intention of being anything other than funny and yet pierce their hearts like daggers.
The huge spread of mental health jokes throughout many social media platforms is a key factor at play. Imagine you’re a 14-year-old boy, you have no experience of anxiety disorder other than exposure to contents online.
When a friend of yours begins to open up to you the only thing that makes sense is for it to be funny, and to make jokes about it.
For you that may seem harmless but for your friend it could be a potentially life changing memory.
This is where we have to draw the line, an accurate education on mental health needs to be administered, like a vaccine it needs to be given young, not in the hopes to cure this epidemic of struggling teens but to prevent it in the first place.
Secondly there needs to be a cultural shift away from just openness.
I feel as a generation and as men we have come to terms with and are comfortable with our feelings, but we need to become aware of that difference between openness and vulnerability.
Often this is the key difference when it comes to receiving help, very rarely in my life have I made myself vulnerable and yet I can see from my experiences and the experiences of those around me that this is the logical next step.
Instead of desensitisation to a plethora of mental illnesses, why don’t we try and establish a sense of safety and security within our close-knit groups and family units that not only is it perfectly natural to struggle with certain feelings but also that its ok to actively seek out help to move past them and prevent them in the long run.
It’s like having a headache, saying you have a headache and yet you refuse to take paracetamol, why?
No reason but I know you’ve done it; we’ve all done it. Just take the paracetamol and take the next step in healing. In fact, let’s take that next step in healing together as a social demographic.