Hello readers! Something a bit different this week. Last year I wrote a guest blog for another mental health blogger called Charlotte Underwood (you can find her website by clicking here). Anyway, last week it was picked up and shared by mental health charity time to change. So I thought it might be worth sharing what I wrote here as well. (Warning may contain triggers). The theme is on the subject of being a man with mental illness and the initial struggles I encountered with this.
Firstly let me start by saying mental illness, irrespective of gender, is horrific! I don’t believe that one gender suffers more than any other. However, it is a fact that in the UK currently 1 in 4 women admit to having had a mental health problem but only 1 in 8 men do.
Yet 3 out of 4 suicides in the UK are men. So there seems to be a reluctance on the part of men to come forward and admit when they’re facing a mental health problem. Or perhaps ‘admit’ isn’t the right word. Instead, the word should be ‘recognise’ I think.
I’m a man who has mental health problems. I’m Andrew, 33 years old and I was first diagnosed as suffering with anxiety and depression at the age of 27. But if I’m honest I think I’d been suffering from anxiety a lot longer than that.
The signs were all there. The frequent urination. The avoidance of certain situations. Constant over-thinking and over-analysis of every situation. But I never spoke to anyone about it because I just thought it was ‘normal’; I think that’s the problem us men face. When I have conversations with my male friends we normally talk about things like the latest sporting result or what we’ve seen on TV.
Our conversations never really reach a level of emotional depth. Yet when I’m talking to my female friends they’re much more interested in talking about how I feel about things or what’s going on in my life.
It feels very much like a different level of conversation and sometimes even like we’re talking in a different language. I’d have no idea whether any of my male friends were struggling. Even if I asked them I think it’s unlikely they’d share their burden.
For us, it’s easier to internalize our struggles. Yet if I asked one of my female friends how they were I’d probably get a far more in-depth response. They seem to find it easier to open up about the things that upset them.
But why is this? Well, perhaps part of it is the societal pressure that I think all men experience to be ‘strong’. This doesn’t just mean physically strong but also mentally strong as well. If a man is suffering or struggling with his emotions that he’s taught to withdraw from others until he’s dealt with the emotions. Or to express them physically.
I remember when I was first struggling visibly with my mental health. The first suggestion people had for me, was not for me talk through and address the issues that were affecting me with a mental health professional in conjunction with medication, but instead to try getting a punching bag. As if I could literally punch the mental illness out of me! I can’t imagine that if I was female the first suggestion made to me, would be to invest in a punching bag!
So, to me, there’s an almost unconscious stereotype that most men can deal with their problems through physicality. Now I’m a great believer that physical exercise can help improve mood. But when fighting a mental illness it’s only one component on the road to mental wellbeing.
So imagine being trapped in a world where the only outlet that’s available to you is a physical one. You can’t talk about what’s happening to you because that’d be weak. You probably don’t even know there’s anything wrong with you because as I say you can’t talk about it. So you don’t have the opportunity to find out that actually what you’re feeling is potentially very harmful to you. As well as crucially, that actually there’s lots of other people around you who are feeling the same, and who could really help you if only you knew how to reach out to each other.
I think that’s why when I first got really ill it took me at least 6 months to reach outto anyone or even to admit that things weren’t right for me. I had no idea what anxiety and depression were or what they meant in practice. Mental health and illness was never something I’d ever talked to any of my male friends about.
When I first got diagnosed and told people about it I was told I just needed to find a hobby or an interest. That I needed to pull myself together. Or ‘man up’. ‘Man up’ is a terrible term. If anyone thinks that men don’t suffer from sexism or gender discrimination then just remember that the expression is ‘man up’ not ‘people up’!
The first G.P. I approached about my problems was male. He didn’t seem particularly bothered about my problems. He just filled out a referral form for me to speak to someone else. I’m not sure who! There was no mention of medication or a discussion about why I was feeling how I was. This left me unsatisfied. I was feeling suicidal by that stage.
So, I went back and spoke to a different G.P. She was female and was much more understanding. She put me on medication straight away and pushed through my referral straight away. She took time to try to explore why I was feeling like I did, to see if there was anything else she could do to help. I don’t think the gender of the two doctors made a difference here. I’ve had far more understanding male G.P.s since but at the time it certainly felt like it! After my diagnosis, I didn’t really know what to do. Did I tell people that I was (to my mind) crazy? Or did I try and carry on and keep being ‘strong’? I made the decision to tell people.
Make no mistake — this was one of the hardest things I’d done. But do you know what? It turned out that being open about my illness and how I was feeling was absolutely the right thing to do. All the fears I had as a man with mental illness about being perceived as weak or not being able to talk about things with my male friends, as well as my female friends proved to be completely unfounded.
In fact by being open about how I was feeling I found that actually some of my other friends were in a similar position. Together we were able to support each other. We’d never have been able to do this if I hadn’t taken that first step myself of talking about it. I think me doing that really helped others feel that they could be open about what was happening to them as well.
These days I write about how I feel and try to help others through the medium of blogging.
I run a website at www.moneymental.co.uk which I’d love you to come and visit! But I also know as well as blogging about things I can also reach out to people via social media (facebook and twitter are great), the telephone and by speaking to people in person.
I don’t believe that only 1 in 8 men suffer from mental health problems. I think that mental health problems don’t care about what gender you are. I think that if 1 in 4 women are experiencing mental health problems then the chances are 1 in 4 men are as well. In fact, I think the number for both genders is actually higher but many people don’t recognize it.
But I can understand why 3 out of 4 suicides are men. When you feel trapped and isolated because of your feelings and have a need to confirm with an outdated social convention. It becomes easier to understand that when you’re on the knees and suffering, suicide seems like the only way out.
So I set a challenge for my fellow men. If you’re suffering or experiencing emotions you’re not used to, or don’t understand, don’t just sit on them and hope they’ll go away. Reach out instead to other people. These days you can reach out anonymously via the internet so no one has to know who you are.
If you do reach out I guarantee that whilst you might find some less friendly persons who perpetuate stigmas and stereotypes. You’ll also find a lot more people who are going through exactly the same as you. Together you might just find that you can conquer the problems/issues that are facing you.
So what have you got to lose? The answer is nothing!