Originally delivered as the winning speech at the Young Local Authority of the Year 2016 public speaking competition by the representatives of Kent Council on Thursday 19th February 2016.
Trigger Warning: Suicide
Around 75% of all successfully committed suicides in the UK are male. This is not a new statistic – for thirty years men have been up to three times more likely to kill themselves. It has become our country’s leading cause of death for men under 50, with 13 male suicides every day. It’s a problem many feel strongly about, but there is a strange reluctance to address this as the feminist issue it is.
How we discuss gender has become strangely polarised – our treatment of men and our treatment of women is always considered separately, as if these behaviours existed in isolation. Over the last century, feminism has encouraged women to challenge traditional gender roles and improve their quality of life; but men have been largely uninvolved in these discussions. Despite campaigns like the UN’s ‘He for She’ trying to widen the debate, men’s lives are still governed tightly by gender norms. As feminism pushes for intersectionality – recognising the needs and rights of BME, LGBT and less affluent women – where men fall in this discussion is still uncertain.
It is important to note that patriarchy is not a dichotomy of men against women. For some men to have authority, there is a clear model of what a ‘good man’ is, and men who fail to live up to this standard are also punished and held in check. These are ‘unconventional’ men – homosexuals, househusbands, the androgynous, disabled, etc. The masculinity of these unconventional men has always been put on trial. This can have profound implications on their mental health, as their gender means they are expected to remain emotionally resilient, physically strong, and capable providers.
Let’s begin with emotional resilience. From our foundation years, we use gendered language to discuss mental wellbeing. We tell boys that ‘big boys don’t cry’ and to ‘man up’. We tell them which behaviours are ‘girly’ and that to show emotions is to be feminine. The British obsession with the stiff upper lip can have lifelong consequences for how men express themselves and use support networks. Half as many men share their concerns with family as women and two thirds as many share with friends. Retired men are at greater risk, as the loss of work relationships can leave them socially isolated. Even medical support is overlooked, as men visit the doctor 20% less than women. Consequently, men often turn to destructive alternatives, being three times more likely to become drug or alcohol dependent. Furthermore men are twice as likely to react angrily to distress. 50% of suicidal men have been in trouble with the police, leading mental health workers to question if we mistake male mental illness for anger. It could be that diagnosis and treatment is tailored better towards women. Men’s Health Forum, National Mental Health Development Unit and Movember Foundation have all concluded men respond positively to ‘shoulder to shoulder’ rather than ‘face to face’ therapies, as they feature peer support and ownership of a problem. Maybe this is why (despite representing most of the UK’s suicides) men make up only 38% of NHS ‘talking therapy’ referrals.
Clearly a perceived tenant of masculinity is concealing weakness – and this plays out emotionally and physically. Whilst many have not followed through in practice, we have become increasingly conscious of the language we use to describe women. However there is not the same self-awareness for men (and indeed some deliberately seek to objectify men’s bodies in order to even the odds). Aidan’s Turner performance in Poldark was infamous – for being topless and muscular. Men’s bodies are scrutinised, with clear notions of what is attractive and manly. Words like ‘dadbod’ mock the average man’s figure, and Dove has never launched an ‘every man is beautiful’ campaign. Is it surprising some men still equate muscles with manliness, regardless of the costs? Once a problem within professional athletes, UK steroid abuse now excels heroin users. NICE believes that 59,000 people took steroids last year; most users were male, with a young average age. There is a growing phenomenon of men, obsessively pushing their bodies to create the perfect gym selfie and have their appearance validated by others. But men also experience other forms of body dysmorphia. In 2014 the Royal College of Practitioners indicated a 66% increase in men treated for eating disorders in the last decade. But society regards these disorders, with their anxieties, concerns about appearance and need for control, as inherently feminine, locking men out of discussions and treatments. It is telling that society is willing to diminish the significance of this mental illness due to the strong associations with young girls – and risk harming everyone in the process.
Evidently many expect men to act emotionally and physically strong – and this is exacerbated by the persisting belief that they must be ‘providers’. Men are still judged by their capacity to support their families and more often than women their employment forms an irrevocable part of their identity and self-worth. Research reveals one in seven men may develop depression within 6 months of being made redundant and unemployment may treble a man’s suicide risk. Following the 2008 economic downturn, thousands of men were left without work or unable to support themselves – they had failed at being ‘good men’. But being a provider is not just financial – particularly for fathers. Just as women are pressured to balance career with family, men are expected to be increasingly involved with their children whilst working. Transitioning to fatherhood is filled with additional financial pressures, emotional moments, changed relationships with partners and less sleep and the Medical Research Council has observed the rise of Parental Postpartum Depression (PPPD); 3% of fathers had been depressed in the first year of their child’s life, 10% by the fourth year, 16% by the eighth and 21% by 12th. Yet little is done to address PPPD, despite the obvious benefits of cross-gender support for new parents fighting depression. And if we need anymore evidence about the importance of this provider role –the highest suicide rate is for divorced men, who have faced changes to their support systems, finances, and access to their children.
No doubt some will take this argument to mean that ‘women have gone too far’; others will say we’re ignoring the persisting issues women face within society. But equality is not a competition and compassion is not finite. It is possible to acknowledge that both genders are stigmatised and we can combat them together. This is a feminist issue – men ‘must’ be resilient, strong and providers, because women ‘must’ be emotional, weak and cared for. For many men who cannot fulfil how they ‘must be’, poor mental health is a consequence of these rigid gender expectations. There are a number of steps which can be taken to reduce the rate of male suicide; awareness of the prevalence, collaborating with local health boards to recognise the needs of vulnerable men, supporting charities with recovery programmes. But what is resoundingly evident is that men will continue to take their lives at a staggering rate, unless society recognises that men can be more than stoic, muscle bound heads of house – there is no right way to be a man.