In this exclusive extract from Mask Off, JJ Bola discusses the growing conversation around male mental health.
You can buy JJ’s book Mask Off here.
Men do not always have the emotional language to discuss their feelings or experiences, even with friends, family or loved ones, and so we often benefit from high profile voices, particularly men, speaking out about their mental health struggles. Hearing from others can really help to open up the conversation by watching an illness which has a long history of taboo attached to it become normalised and humanised before your own eyes. Typically, notions of manhood and masculinity reinforce the idea that men do not, or should not, suffer from mental health issues such as anxiety or depression because it makes them weak. And so, high-profile men and public figures help people to understand that many of us go through the same thing, bridging the gap between mental health and the male identity. However, even they face backlash and are sometimes told to ‘man up’. For example, in 2017, journalist and TV presenter Piers Morgan tweeted in response to new statistics, ‘34 million UK adults are mentally ill? Man up, Britain, and focus on those who REALLY need help.’ Often, it is difficult to open up and speak to the people around you, so when a celebrity or even a stranger, says that they are going through what you are going through; anxiety, depression, hopelessness, it validates your feelings. It makes you feel like you are normal for going through it because someone you admire is also going through it; it also gives you hope when the person has gone through it already and come out the other side – it makes you feel like you can too. But damaging comments from celebrities such as those telling people to ‘man up’, can also stop people from getting the help they need. Widespread concern about mental health issues when a shocking story is released in the press about a high-profile figure is a positive, but the same level of attention, empathy and care should be extended to all individuals who are suffering, beyond the public realm.
There are a number of reasons why a person may decide to take their own life; it is often ambiguous and unclear to others, and sometimes unclear to the person suffering. For many men, it may stem from issues of internalised rage and anger resulting from existing trauma, such as abuse, or feelings of utter hopelessness and an inability (or a lack of desire) to cope with life – depression. Nonetheless, it’s essential to ensure that people feel supported before mental health issues reach a crisis stage. Charities such as Young Minds fight for preventative strategies at earlier stages in young people’s lives, where they are particularly vulnerable to suffering from mental health issues.
The stigma around men, masculinity and mental health will only begin to change once the shaming and silencing of men who suffer from it ends. We need to have more men who are open and expressive about their experiences and struggles with mental health, but also their everyday experiences, not just the struggles. The more men and boys are allowed to express themselves, especially in an emotional way, without judgement (from other men, in particular), the sooner we will see a positive change. This needs to happen from boyhood. In the documentary on boyhood and masculinity, The Mask You Live In, Dr. Niobe Way claims ‘at the exact age we begin to hear emotional language disappear in boy’s narrative in the national data, that’s exactly the age boys begin to have suicide rates higher by five times than girls’.
Writing poetry and keeping a diary helped me so much with my own mental health struggles, expressing myself and under- standing my thoughts. Where I thought I had no one to talk to, or did not feel comfortable speaking to anyone else – largely due to the fact that I was concerned about being judged or not being understood – I would write in my diary. I would express myself through writing, and that kind of expression, although not an absolute solution, did help alleviate some of the burdens I faced at the time. A lot of men need this open, expressive medium as well as communal support. We need to stop treating mental health and all the illnesses that fall under it such as depression and suicide as isolated incidents and come together to support one another, free of judgement, in spaces that are safe, loving and transformative. Above all, we need to challenge the cuts being made to health services, fighting for everyone to have adequate access to treatment, which can be lifesaving.