For a week at the end of March 2018, visitors to London's Southbank were confronted by a disturbing sight if they looked up from the River Thames. On top of the studios and glass and concrete tower of television network ITV, silhouetted against the spring sky, were men. Unmoving rows of men standing at edges of the buildings like guards or sentinels. Or people planning to jump.
Project Eighty Four was an artwork by Mark Jenkins. The project was commissioned my men's mental health charity CALM (The Campaign Against Living Miserably) with sponsorship from a men's shaving brand. Each of the eighty four sculptures, created with people who had lost loved ones to suicide, represented one of the eighty four men who kill themselves each day in the UK. As an artwork, Project Eighty Four is touching and speaks to the loss and bewilderment of those left behind.
Men's mental health: finding a shared language of emotions
We talk about suicide as if it were a proxy for the severity of men's challenges in life, or a signifier of the severity of men's mental health problems. We talk about the event because we are not comfortable talking about the reality that created it. For many men, even now, discussing their own emotional life is not a first language that feels comfortable on the tongue.
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We are still at the stage of eye catching art works and shocking statistics around men's suicide because we don't yet have the shared language and understanding that makes discussing men's mental health and wellbeing possible.
Expressing reciprocal vulnerability and sharing an emotional life with others is often as stilted and awkward as trying to order dinner in a foreign country. We raise our voice when the other is baffled, lacking the words to explain more clearly.
Sharing an emotional life with others is often as stilted and awkward as trying to order dinner in a foreign country
Despite over a decade of concerted activity to de-stigmatise mental health difficulty, it isn't clear that an openness about mental health has translated into a widespread comfort for men in discussing emotions and feelings. Traditional masculinity stresses self-reliance, an emotional universe where stoicism clashes with an imperative to definitive action. It is a world where 'doing something' is considered decisive and where suffering something is considered strong. Talking and sharing and letting others in is not a primary skill.
Talking doesn't come easy unless we practice
A 2017 Australian research study interviewed 20 men aged between 16 and 63 about their feelings about therapy for depression found that many of the men they spoke to didn't really like the talking bit of talking therapy. The men felt they lacked control in the initial stages of therapy with the therapist telling them what to do while not explaining what the process of therapy was. The men interviewed stressed that they did not want to feel passive in the process and wanted to be treated as individuals, not just as "another depressed patient."
'Men didn't like the talking bit of talking therapy'
A common theme for the men interviewed was the wish to be solution-focused, not to be engaged in what one man referred to as “basically a talkfest.” As one man told the researchers: "It's great to get my feelings out there and it's good to have someone listen... It doesn't really help you day to day, doesn't help you change your lifestyle patterns... the next day you sort of go, 'what am I actually supposed to be doing?'" Some of the men talked about wanting toolkits and practical things to do. One man said: "I saw my mental health as something that could treated, as a problem that could be fixed. In a kind of mechanical way and effectively wanted someone to give me the tools to fix it."
A time of crisis is not the time to learn to talk about what happens in your head when the world isn't what you need it to be. Learning to discuss your emotions and your relationships and your feelings about yourself and others is not something which is only there as an emergency option, like a fire extinguisher behind a glass panel.
Men shouldn't have to learn to talk about what happens in your head only when they are at a time of crisis, but before
Finding reciprocal emotional relationship is not just an insurance policy, it’s realisation of what life can be if you approach it differently. Men have long joked about talking about feelings as being ‘touchy-feely’, but failure to be emotionally touched or to feel the emotional response of others in return leaves you an island, a tribe of one.
Owning our emotions
Losing a job, the end of a relationship, a bereavement, a frustration of desire or a change in status: all are normal human occurrences. They are not easily fixed. There’s no Hayne’s manual. No rules that guarantee success. Traditional masculinity has made it women’s work to listen and to soothe but that is not women’s responsibility. Unless we have learned to be with our emotions and own them, feelings like shame, loss, disappointment or frustration that the world and others in it will not do what we want can shake us apart.
Those most at risk are furthest away from the things needed to reduce that risk
The profile for those most at risk of suicide overlaps strongly traits most commonly celebrated as uniquely masculine. Thomas Joiner, a psychologist, identified a number of common factors in those with suicidal feelings who are most at risk of putting them into action. Those most at risk feel a lack of connection to others and feel as if they don't belong. They feel as if they are a burden to others. They are less worried about hurting themselves and are familiar with suicide techniques. Intoxication and impulsiveness can play a role. Unhappy or challenging life events challenge our sense of control over our lives. Those most at risk are furthest away from the things needed to reduce that risk.
Not skipping to the end
It can feel uncomfortably close to victim blaming to talk about men’s mental health; to pointing out where someone in desperate need has gone wrong rather than helping. This means as a society we are often more comfortable discussing the tragedy of stories that that will never be completed than speaking, or listening to, sadness, pain and loss as they happen and changing the outcome. Challenging life events happen. Mental health difficulty happens. The end is not inevitable.
Without change it will be impossible to prevent this horrific death toll, especially where the thing most fiercely defended is the thing that is most likely to accentuate the crisis. Unless we find our language of emotion and desire and need and sadness and hurt, we will be left with statistics and desperation.
There are no ready answers, but that is what makes the job pressing and vital. To reduce tragic deaths we must find the language to express sad lives and to accept the counsel and support of others. It is our work to make sure the focus on supporting and developing men’s mental health and emotional life, however hard it is, does not continue to avoid the difficult story by skipping to the end. Speaking of emotion and fear and sadness may be a second language for men now. It must be a first language for the men who come after.
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Mark Brown is a guest blogger for Minddistrict, blogs at thenewmentalhealth.org and was the editor of mental health magazine One in Four.