New blog – For today’s blog I thought I’d share a bit about my experiences as a man with mental illness. I was inspired to do this by a fellow blogger (Charlotte Underwood) who I’ve just written for who was very interested in speaking to a man who suffers with mental illness. If you’d like to look at her site (which I can highly recommend) you can find it by clicking here.
Writing for Charlotte made me really think about what it’s like to be a man with mental health problems and some of the experiences I had that perhaps stopped me seeking support when I first started to really struggle with my mental health. Over the weekend I also visited the excellent blogon conference and talked to lots of people about my battles with mental health. (Incidentally, if you’re starting to get into the blogging/vlogging world I can highly recommend blogon and you can find details of it by clicking here). A lot of the attendees pointed out to me how rare it was to find a man who was so open about mental health and this struck me as something that is perhaps very wrong in society today. Why can’t men be more open and honest about their mental health challenges?
So I’ve spent a bit of time thinking about this today and doing some research into the subject.
Some stats about mental health across the genders:
1 in 4 women seek treatment for a mental health problem.
1 in 8 men seek treatment for a mental health problem.
Yet despite that 3 in 4 suicides are men.
Do these stats mean that women suffer more with mental health problems then men do? Or is the case that actually less men choose to/feel able to seek help for their mental health problems. To the extent that they end up getting overwhelmed by them and end up taking their own lives. My view is certainly along the lines of the latter.
Differences in communication between men and women:
When I first became mentally ill things were really bad for me. Really, really, really bad. I couldn’t focus on anything. I couldn’t even read a page in a book. I didn’t care if I lived or died. I had zero motivation. I was suicidal. There was no way I’d have been able to write this blog post at all! But despite feeling like this for many months I didn’t even realise I had a mental health problem. Why? Well because men DON’T talk about mental health problems. We just don’t. We talk about things like the football scores or what we sore on TV last night. A good drink we’ve had or what we’re going to have to eat.
I’ve noticed when I’m in conversation with women the conversation and even the language used (choice of words not suddenly speaking French!) is completely different. Women are more open to sharing their emotions and their emotional reactions to things. They talk about more far-reaching things and share their experiences. They also spend a lot more time talking about problems they encounter during their life. With a man when we talk about a problem we’ve had we’re looking for someone to help offer up a solution or some advice. But for women, they’re just looking for someone to listen and understand – offering empathy and not advice. It’s very different! Therefore when a woman is experiencing a problem or some emotions she doesn’t understand she’ll speak to her friends about it. But for the man, it’s totally different. I don’t think we actually know how to have this type of conversation. How do you switch from talking about the performances of your favourite football team to saying that you’re feeling suicidal? Unless of course, it’s the performances of your team that is making you feel like that! (That’s a joke by the way).
Why don’t men talk?:
Recently I’ve begun to realise that I struggled with my mental health for a lot longer than I’d thought. I’d been experiencing symptoms like frequent urination, avoidance of certain situations, social anxiety and constant over-thinking for most of my adult life without realising that it was a problem. But then cataclysm came. Over a 6 month period, I lost the ability to focus on something as simple as reading a page in a book. I lost all motivation to look after myself. I didn’t care whether I lived or died. I was terrified of everything and leaving the house was the last thing I wanted to do. I ended up feeling suicidal. And yet still despite all this, I didn’t talk to anyone. It didn’t even occur to me that I might be mentally ill. I think as men because we don’t talk about feelings we don’t even necessarily know what we’re experiencing. The male vocabulary range seems to extend to happy, angry, sad, annoyed, jealous, content and that’s about it. I can’t ever remember using any other descriptors with my male friends. Anxious wasn’t a word in our vocabulary.
Worse than this though is the pressure that society places on us as men. Even now there’s still this concept that men are ‘strong’. We’re the hunter-gatherers. We’re the protectors. We have alpha males. I don’t believe that these concepts really exist anymore. But nonetheless, there’s the expectation that we live up to these pre-historic ways of thinking. As a man admitting to having feelings or to being vulnerable can be seen as weak. So we just don’t do it. We isolate ourselves. We don’t want anyone seeing us weak or vulnerable because that’s not how we are SUPPOSED to be.
There’s a physical expectation of men. When I first started opening up to people about how I was feeling the suggestion was not that I should speak to my G.P. or seek the help of a mental health professional. Talking about it wasn’t an acceptable option (or at least not one that occurred to people). Instead, the solution was that I get a punching bag and try and punch out my frustration. I can’t imagine that the first suggestion offered to a woman opening up about her anxiety and depression is that she invests in a punching bag! I think maybe an element of this is that I do believe depression can manifest differently in men to women. For me, mine often manifests as anger and I believe that this is the same for many men. But, despite the brilliance that exercise offers, whether you’re a man or a woman you can’t simply punch away your mental illness.
Finding a way to talk as a man:
Eventually, after months of continuous suffering, I went to the G.P. This was a decision I made on my own because I really didn’t know what was happening for me. The first G.P. I saw was a man. He diagnosed me as likely suffering from anxiety and depression. And that was it. No medication. No real offer of help or support. No attempt to understand why I was feeling like I did. I think the only thing he did was send a referral of to some magical place. I’ve no idea what became of that referral. After a couple of weeks, I went back to the G.P. again. This time I saw a lady G.P. She was brilliant. She put me on medication, made sure I had lots of contact details, asked me about what was happening for me and made a real effort to understand it. I don’t know why her approach was so different. Was it because she was a woman? I’m not sure. I’ve had male G.P.s since who have been fine so maybe I just had a particularly bad one on my first visit. Or maybe he didn’t think that I would feel comfortable talking about my feelings.
Anyway, after my diagnosis, I was faced with a choice. Did I tell people about it? Or did I keep it to myself? It doesn’t matter whether you’re a man or a woman there is so much stigma out there around mental illness that talking about it is the hardest thing you can do. So for me, gender didn’t really come into it. More of a concern was whether people would think I was crazy. But I sucked it up and decided to be honest about it. I rang a few of my close friends and I used social media (and blogging) to talk about what was happening to me. And the reaction, by and large, was brilliant. Don’t get me wrong, there were a couple of people who told me to ‘man up’. I hate the phrase ‘man up’. It’s just sexist. Why isn’t it ‘people up’? It perpetuates the male stereotypes that hold us back. I had a few people as well who told me to be more like someone else. I can tell you it’s definitely not possible for you to be anyone else! You are who you are. But the point I’m making is that actually, my decision to speak out was a good one.
My friends didn’t think I was crazy.
No one judged me. Or those that did were idiots anyway.
People were supportive.
More people started being open about some of the problems that they were facing. I wasn’t alone!
Mental illness is a LOT more common than people realise.
So if you’re a man who’s struggling with your emotions or to express yourself (it doesn’t have to be due to a mental illness) the best advice I can give you (and men love giving advice!) is to talk about it. I don’t mean going out and making some big announcement to the world that everyone can see. But I mean something small. Like saying I’m not very happy at the moment. And exploring why that may be. These days the internet can offer us fantastic anonymity. You can literally talk about anything with anyone. So use it to reach out. Twitter is great for finding other people who are suffering and just talking with them. You’ll quickly find that there are people out there who will support you and that you can help support as well. So you both get something out of it! Yes, there’ll be occasions where you get judged. Or you put your trust in the wrong person. But I promise you’ll find the right people to talk to as well. As a man it feels tremendously uncomfortable to talk about feelings, whether they’re our own or someone else’s. It still makes me uncomfortable now. But I’ve found that blogging about it, sharing things on social media, picking up the phone and even speaking to people in person (scary!) can really help make me feel more (or slightly more) comfortable doing this. And honestly, I think if I hadn’t done so rather than be part of the 1 in 8 men receiving treatment for mental illness there’s a very real chance that I’d have been one of the 3 in 4 male suicides instead. So take note of my experiences here and GET TALKING! It’ll save your life 🙂
Thanks for reading. If you want to talk about any of the subjects or themes raised in this blog then feel free to comment below or you can reach out to me privately via DM on twitter by following my twitter account @moneymentaluk