Perhaps the one good thing to rise, phoenix-like, from the smouldering wreckage of International Men’s Day is that male mental health is finally getting some prolonged attention. The numbers have long warranted this; stats like ‘suicide is the largest single killer of men under 35’ have finally emerged from the inside pages of the Telegraph out into the light of campus scrutiny. The resulting picture is extremely worrying: more young men are dying by than own hand than through drugs, traffic accidents or heart disease. British men are now facing what some are calling a ‘suicide epidemic’.
Sadly, these reports don’t surprise me as much as I’d like them to. I personally know six people who have had to take a year out of their studies due to mental health related issues. All of them are male: perfectly normal guys with loving families, decent prospects and no uniform explanation for their struggles. There is no childhood trauma that binds them, no History Boys-style paedophile giving them turns on his motorbike, and none of them went to Catholic school. Their problems are individual and their own.
Though the stiff-upper-lip, trying-to-live-up-to-my-father’s-war-record school of masculinity is hopefully a thing of the past, man-to-man chats still frequently take the form of periodic progress checks that reveal the presence of a problem (‘It hasn’t been a good year’) without delving into its nature. Women, in my experience, are far more likely to maintain a supportive dialogue over a period of time, while men often appear to be surviving just fine before suddenly crashing and burning. Overall, men are almost 4 times more likely to kill themselves than women.
To knowingly court controversy, this does seem to me like a ‘male issue’. So, like a Thatcherite walking into a Durham coal mine, this straight white male will now venture into the realm of gender politics.
One of the main counter-arguments I heard to IMD was that ‘feminism seeks to address all mental health’. As admirable an idea as this is, it clearly isn’t working. Male suicide rates are rising year on year, and a recent anxiety workshop on campus received 26 attendees, only 5 of whom were male. Last year’s World Mental Health Day Facebook group was equally skewed, with just 20% male attendance several of whom were SABB officers tied to the event. Loath as I am to use such small samples for such a big question, the trend is pretty clear: universal mental health initiatives are not reaching as many men as they need to.
So, can we have a discussion about mental health that is specifically aimed at men? Post-IMD the chances look mixed at best.
Jack Chadwick recently stated in York Vision that ‘IMD was not a good platform for dealing with any issues because of…the separation the event seeks from feminism’, and described male mental health issues as ‘just facets of one system’. With the statistics the way they are, to dismiss the whole of male mental health simply as one more bi-product of the patriarchy is a dire over-simplification. Samaritans recently produced a 134-page study entitled ‘Men and Suicide’, in which they identified and discussed a wide variety of inter-related factors, including but not limited to: changing male roles within society, loneliness, unemployment, alcoholism, emotional illiteracy, socio-economic circumstance, divorce, lack of local leadership, disconnection with father figures and issues with medical diagnosis. With 78% of all suicides being committed by men, to palm the issue off onto the ‘toxic masculinity’ of the patriarchy without further attention is nothing short of callous.
Equally, let’s be honest, not everyone under the feminist umbrella comes across as entirely man-friendly. I regard myself as a feminist (definition: ‘an advocate of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes’), but making constant cracks about ‘fragile masculinity’ has never been a constructive way of encouraging gender equality. Though this may not be the intended message, the implication is that our masculinity ought to be stronger, prouder, more impervious (does that break down the patriarchy?) – and that you don’t really care if we’re upset. It certainly doesn’t encourage a confused or depressed man to open up about his feelings when Facebook bombards him with the likes of: ‘“Men prefer-“ oh wait I don’t care #maleego’.
There is a fundamental issue here: how can we tell men that their mental health problems are being destigmatised, while stigmatisation dogs the entire framework of the conversation?
None of this is meant to reflect badly upon real feminism. It exists to establish gender equality – from a female perspective. Feminism has and will no doubt continue to achieve wonderful things. It does not, however, exist to solve the crisis in male mental health and we shouldn’t try to force every issue into its remit. Feminists would quite rightly protest if it was suggested that men should hold sway in debating their place in society, so it seems bizarre to say that feminists should define the debate on this most tragic of men’s issues. Men’s mental health needs the space to have its own narrative, rather than being carelessly shoved into somebody else’s.
It should be said that the so-called ‘men’s rights’ narrative can be even more unhelpful. That MRA supremo who commented on your status, confidently asserting that bra-burning feminazis are responsible for the social castration of the ‘manosphere’, is too often the male voice on this issue. By the very nature of this debate, the men who take part in it are most likely not those who need it the most. While meninists and feminists argue into the early hours over the definition of the word ‘oppressed’, the affected demographic sit quietly unnoticed.
For me, this is the most important thing to take away from the International Men’s Day fiasco: why does gender politics need to be a zero sum game? It is apparently not enough for one gender to succeed; in this hotly-contested battle of the sexes all other genders must fail. There is no reason whatsoever why a debate on the structural disadvantages of women and the mental health of men should not coexist in perfect harmony (periodically uniting against the caped supervillain that is patriarchy).
Men’s mental health is currently an urgent and sensitive topic that should not be tossed around like a political football. So, MRAs and feminists please leave your preconceptions at the door, and either help in creating an independent framework for this serious issue, or at least don’t hinder it.