Stay strong my brother: men and mental health

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Happy International Women’s Day 2017!

Today is International Women’s Day, a wonderful, powerful statement of the hard fight towards equality undertaken by brave and courageous women across the globe. However, as a man, today I also think about the voice and suffering of other men.

Masculinity has worked itself into a strange position, something of an awkward contortion. It’s of no doubt that the inequality of patriarchy is alive and well, but the ordinary men that blindly make up its rank and file are experiencing a withering and barely perceptible kind of dispossession. The statistical picture for the mental, and indeed social, wellbeing of men is a worrying one:

  • Over three quarters of people who kill themselves are men (Reference: ONS).
  • Men report significantly lower life satisfaction than women in the Government’s national well-being survey – with those aged 45 to 59 reporting the lowest levels of life satisfaction (Reference: ONS)
  • 73% of adults who ‘go missing’ are men (Reference: University of York).
  • 87% of rough sleepers are men (Reference: Crisis).
  • Men are nearly three times more likely than women to become alcohol dependent (8.7% of men are alcohol dependent compared to 3.3% of women) (Reference: HSCIC).
  • Men are three times as likely to report frequent drug use than women (4.2% and 1.4% respectively) and more than two thirds of drug-related deaths occur in men (Reference: Information Centre).
  • Men make up 95% of the prison population (Reference: House of Commons Library). 72% of male prisoners suffer from two or more mental disorders (Reference: Social Exclusion Unit).
  • Men are nearly 50% more likely than women to be detained and treated compulsorily as psychiatric inpatients (Reference: Information Centre).
  • Men have measurably lower access to the social support of friends, relatives and community (References: R. Boreham and D. Pevalin).
  • Men commit 86% of violent crime (and are twice as likely to be victims of violent crime) (Reference: ONS).
  • Boys are around three times more likely to receive a permanent or fixed period exclusion than girls (Reference: Gov.uk).
  • Boys are performing less well than girls at all levels of education. In 2013 only 55.6% of boys achieved 5 or more grade A*-C GCSEs including English and mathematics, compared to 65.7% of girls (Reference: Department for Education).

(Men’s Health Forum: key data – mental health)

The social and economic roles that have been traditionally filled by men have been being steadily eroded since the early 20th century, and this process has been intensified in recent decades by the cultural accelerometers of capital and late modernity. In many ways this change is overwhelmingly positive. The effacement of artificially gendered roles can only contribute to a more equal society, and the benefits of this kind of society accrue to everyone. However, somewhere along the way, men forgot to reconceptualise and re-theorise their own masculinity, they forgot to reposition the coordinates of manhood, and to redefine the lingua franca with which to communicate the essence of being a man.

Structural relationships between men and women are improved (though there is of course an inordinate distance still to go) and the cultural topography of the world looks like one of seamless, technological progress. Competition is unshackled and innovation is the zeitgeist that assures us that we are just another step away from perfecting our way of being. This, quite obviously, is a fictitious narrative. Our way of being remains riddled with inequalities, and somewhere lost in the ether of this unhappy, perverse hyper-reality is the modern man. Beneath the idealised image of the sculpted six-pack is a newly vulnerable kind of masculinity, troubled by the displacement of an older incarnation of itself, and plagued by the self-doubt of depression and other mental health conditions.

Helping men to be well is about making them educable. Educable about the role that they play in a society that is moving, very slowly and often with a retrograde motion, towards being more equitable, but also educable in the relation to their identity and concept of self. It is only with attention to both of these dynamics of masculinity that we can draw attention to, and begin to unpick the suffering, of a generation of men that have succumbed to unhappiness. Mental health problems are perversely egalitarian: they affect everyone. But they affect men in a particular way, and coalesce around a number of behaviours and experiences that are uniquely male. Repositioning ‘manhood’ away from received expectations of competition, dominance, and conflict is an essential project for the early 21st century.

International Women’s Day is the celebration of a unifying, ongoing goal – a marker of the determination to challenge and struggle and of the will to overcome. It is also a moment to think about the reciprocal status of masculinity, to realise that equality is also about excavating the hidden sufferings that haunt a form of patriarchy that, for many men, can only offer an existential logic in the clinical confines of a gym. A kind of masculinity that is incapable of offering solace, and abandons its very constituents to depression and suicide.