On July 24th Paddy “The Baddy” Pimblett, a UFC MMA fighter with a 1st degree black belt in Jiu-jitsu made an incredibly moving speech after winning a match. He spoke about mental health and how there is a stigma around men talking about their feelings. About how he woke up to a message that a friend back home had killed himself. “I would rather have my mate cry on my shoulder than go to his funeral next week” he stated. Pleading to men who are struggling, who “have a weight on [their] shoulders” to speak up.
November is men's health month and is meant to raise awareness for men's health issues such as prostate or testicular cancer as well as mental health issues, particularly the soaring rates of suicide in men. Whilst the sex-specific nature of anatomical health issues is rather self explanatory. I would like to use this space to discuss the latter: Men’s mental health. 510,000 men commit suicide every year, one every minute (WHO). They are just as likely to suffer from anxiety and depression as women yet in a recent survey 29% of men admitted to not seeking mental health support compared to 18% of women (YouGov). Men are also two times as likely to binge drink and three times as likely to die as a consequence of alcohol abuse (MindWise.org)
This issue has not gone unnoticed. You might have heard of “Mo-vember”, a movement in which men grow out their mustaches during the month of November in order to raise awareness and funds for men’s mental and physical health issues. This movement has gathered a lot of traction over the years. As exemplified by Paddy’s speech there are growing efforts to bring awareness and open discussions on the issue of men’s mental health. However, the discussion is still quite young and has only been present for the last decade or so. Furthermore, the issue at hand remains an infrastructural one, embedded deep in our collective cultural psyche.
To quote Mark Roland, Director of the Mental Health Foundation, “Mental health is so central to our experience of being alive that if we’re ever to rise to the challenge of preventing mental health problems, it will be because men feel more able to share when they are vulnerable,” because as long as men are taught that emotions and sensitivity are a sign of weakness they will not be receptive to these efforts. They will continue to fall on deaf ears. Once again, November rolls around and we are left wondering if any substantial change has been achieved.
Why It Happens
While we like to think that we are past certain stereotypes rooted in misogyny, they persist in our daily vocabulary. Phrases such as “crying like a girl” not only degrade women and girls, they create the association between emoting and degradation for men. We continuously tell boys that their masculinity is their most valuable asset. That it needs to be protected, maintained, and reinforced. Whether it be by their choice in drink, hobbies, clothing, how they talk, walk, dance, sleep, what kind of shampoo they use. Whatever masculinity is -arbitrarily- defined by in that time and geography. Then we tell the world that emotions are inherently feminine. That women are more empathetic, better listeners, or ridicule women for ‘only ever wanting to talk about emotions’. As a society, we establish the sentiment that femininity is weakness, we tell the world that emotions and sensitivity are feminine. We then wonder why men conflate being emotional with being weak. Two plus two can only equal four. In the context of a society where femininity is belittled, sensitivity becomes an attribute to avoid at all costs.
At this part of the discussion, I would like to point out that it is rather curious and oxymoronic in nature that while masculinity is generally defined by traits such as toughness, endurance, and a lack of sensitivity; it appears incredibly fragile and capricious. Masculinity, as stipulated by cultural norms, demands persistent upkeep and can be bruised at the simplest of transgressions. Such as complimenting a mate, or drinking a fruity cocktail, perhaps.
It seems intuitive that the issue here is that men are not encouraged or empowered to talk about emotions through a variety of societally reinforced means. Thus, they do not have the space to develop their emotional literacy to identify or discuss their problems, nor do they have a safe or judgment free platform in order to comfortably do so. Furthermore, we place the weight of masculinity and the maintenance of a performative persona based on toughness and burying one's emotions upon them. This burden snowballs into soaring rates of a myriad of untreated mental health issues and ultimately suicide.
All of this said, it may seem daunting to broach the topic. To challenge such reinforced expectations whilst providing a shoulder to cry on or allowing yourself to express vulnerability is no easy feat. The key word here is vulnerability. There is immense virtue in the terrifying ordeal of allowing yourself to be seen. Especially with wounds or sensitivities you have been taught to reject. To rub some dirt in it, to man up, and carry on. But it is not possible to be authentic without allowing someone to see you. Vulnerability and sensitivity are hard to achieve when one has been punished or ridiculed for it from a young age which, regrettably, makes it all the more crucial.
Last night I had a fully grown man I’d never met cry before me as he clutched onto my hand - for emotional and physical support, too drunk to stand up straight. He was in his fifties, a war veteran and an ex-boxer. The poster child for a hyper-masculine life. I came to find out that he suffers from intense PTSD and can be incredibly volatile and unpredictable, “a live wire” as someone described him. My friends, big scary bartenders, MMA fighters, boys I’ve seldom seen uneasy at the potentiality of a fight had an audible urgency to their tone when suggesting I should go back inside the pub. Not because they thought this man, weeping to a stranger about how he doesn't want to be a fighter, meant any harm to me. If anything, he was incredibly apologetic for causing a scene. They simply couldn't predict his next move. He left soon after that. About an hour later we found out he had flipped and started to assault some people at a bar down the street.
I’m aware of how much of an extreme example this man is. But do you recognise any patterns from this story? In yourself or a friend? The inability to display any emotion from the extent of the engrained “boys don't cry” narrative. Resorting to alcohol to numb one's own feelings, with the perhaps unconsciously desired side effect of distorted inhibitions allowing for an emotional outpour, which then is overcorrected by heightened aggression to preserve one's sense of self and masculinity as a man. My heart went out for this man. “He’s not a bad guy” said my friend who had once had to fight him off with four other bartenders at a pub because he had had an episode much like the one from last night. “He's just really scrambled in the head”. This man has gone through immense amounts of trauma and never had the space or encouragement to effectively discuss it. So he sought shelter in alcohol which only further aggravated the issue.
I will not pretend to know how to perfectly navigate these difficult conversations. I suppose the only thing I can say for certain is that the knowledge that someone is there to listen if it is needed has never hurt anybody. The ALEC model -Ask, Listen, Encourage action, and Check-in- is a good starting point and foundational basis to use to empower people who have been discouraged from speaking up. As Paddy said, “there is a stigma in this world that men can't talk”. Yet, as a person in one of the most traditionally masculine careers, he broke his silence and drew attention to the topic. Displayed vulnerability, sensitivity, and emotion for millions to view. I invite the men who are reading this to exercise an act of vulnerability towards someone you trust this week and to observe its results. Does it make you feel lighter? Is it something you fear? If one of your friends displayed the same kind of vulnerability to you, would you be harsh on them? Perhaps as harsh as you are being on yourself? Or would you provide space for their feelings? Will you provide space for your own?