Male Mental Health: A Mother’s Perspective
Princes. Kings. Knights. Wizards. Dukes. Lords. Tinkers. Tailors. Soldiers. Sailors. Men. Boys. The humans with the seed that creates life. The humans who for centuries were deemed all-powerful, more important than women, the human gender that was created first according to scripture. Of course, we know this all now to be sexist protocol from ancient times but nevertheless, a pressure came with the making of man. There is a something to live up to, to strive for, to uphold that is inherent in manhood. If we read between the biblical lines, to be brave came hand in hand with being the proprietor of a penis.
I love men. Always have. For one I have a father whose presence, charisma, comic timing and ability to dominate every room he is in with his feelings gave me a firm footing in understanding the complexity of men. And then there is my little brother. I was loud, a permanent resident of centre stage growing up, whereas he was happy to wait in the wings, waiting for me to conjure up something exciting to do. So, I was sandwiched between two humans, man and boy, from the word go, both giving me a kaleidoscope viewpoint of what it is to be male. But there were other men around too who showed me how diverse, intelligent, interesting, sage, kind, nurturing, amusing, creative, pensive, dominant, aggressive and protective men can be. My step grandfather, my uncles, my godfathers, my friends. By the time I was midway through primary school, I felt far more comfortable with boys. When a lot of my boy friends left aged seven to go to prep schools, I felt bereft for an entire term. Single-sex life felt like a half-life. This is a core memory of mine.
Fast forward three decades and I am the mother of three males. I am outnumbered by BOY. I have been studying BOY for the past eleven years, all the years I have been mothering male humans. They are a complicated mass of neurons. And they are all different. And when you mother them, you realise a lot of the commonplace myths about men are a fallacy. You realise a lot of the pre-requisites that dictate a win at manhood are not instinctive to all little boys but are instead put upon them by their environments and primary carers. It is learnt behaviour as opposed to being part of their DNA. And so many of these ways of being are ill-suited to the far more sensitive souls of so many men than the world cares to admit. And what happens when sensitivity, pureness and open-hearted beings are moulded, conditioned and caged into being a certain way? CHAOS. Perhaps not visible to the naked eye, perhaps not audible to a conch-shaped ear. Why? Because, just as man has been pre-conditioned through the ages to be a certain way, all the feelings and emotions that come within us all have been pre-conditioned to be buried deep, unacknowledged and wrapped in self-denial in far too many a man.
I think deeply how I want to raise my sons, battling my own instinctive beliefs against all the boy-propaganda one hears on the street. People don’t mean to do it. They don’t even know they are doing it. But it is everywhere:
“That doesn’t hurt? Come on? You’re a tough guy!”
“Be a big, brave boy!”
“Stop crying like a girl!”
“You need to stop mollycoddling them so much Anna, they are going to be men, the world is tough and they need to be prepared for it.”
“Your son is a sensitive chap, he isn’t as confident and boisterous as the other boys in class to shout out the answers.”
And it doesn’t just stop with the adults. I remember when my eldest was in his first year of primary school, a gaggle of other boys would corner him and chant at him over and over:
“You can’t play football, you can’t play football.” Their masculinity rung out bell-clear and in harmony, football machismo already instilled and in-built to weed out any exile Lord of The Flies style. My son felt sometimes felt like the weak link aged only four. Had my husband and I forced him to man up or ignored his upset, would that have made him a tougher boy? Possibly. But for me, being someone so achingly aware of my own fragility, my own anxious mind, I knew that wasn’t the right thing for him. And my husband, being an equally sensitive-souled man, felt just as I did. Our son is now nearing eleven years old. He is still sensitive. But he is emotionally strong, verbally fluent in discussing how he FEELS. He can articulate his feelings, he can stand up for himself verbally, he isn’t afraid to FEEL. And for me, this was the most instinctive gift to give my sons. I believe the gift of understanding, dissecting and verbalising our true feelings, particularly for boys, can be the difference between life, and death. Below are some of the most alarming pieces of information I discovered whilst I was writing this piece:
· 84 men take their own lives every week in the UK.
· Suicide is the biggest killer of men under the age of 45.
· Three out of four male deaths are caused by suicide. 6000 people died in 2013 due to suicide, 78% were men.
· One in four young men in the UK self-harm because of stress, anxiety or depression, according to a recent YouGov poll of 500 men.
· A quarter of men aged 16 to 24 said they had intentionally harmed themselves, and another 22% said they had considered it.
· Excessive exercise, over-eating, restricted eating, binge drinking, drug addiction, sex addiction, punching walls regularly or burning skin with cigarettes are all forms of self-harm regularly reported in men.
· A study published last year by the American Psychological Association found a link between depression and substance abuse, and 'masculine' traits, like being stoic, competitive and tough. Those who conform to these masculine behaviours were found to have poorer mental health and were less inclined to seek help.
· One in eight men have no close friends – as a result, they don’t talk to anyone about their feelings.
· 86% of homeless people are men.
· Self-harm in boys is increasing due to social media.
· Men use work to hide their feelings – those working 60+ hours a week are the most vulnerable.
· Macho culture very much still exists – anonymous fears include "a fear of feeling anything."
These horrific statistics aren’t new – we just live in an age where, FINALLY, we are talking about it more openly. As a mother of boys, these statistics only deepen my sense of urgency in talking to my boys every day, drumming it into them that they must SAY HOW THEY FEEL. This conversation is phenomenally forward-thinking, positive, GOOD.
But, this modern way to parent, this huge awareness of our children’s mental health status comes with its challenges too. As a mother, reading so much about the mental health battles and pressures on young people can’t help but ring my own anxious alarm bells. I swing wildly from one thought to another. I contemplate seriously that my middle child’s latest tantrum is a premonition of his future mental demise. And during another tantrum I am absolutely sure that he is just an 8 year old child who is tired, hungry, needs to go to the loo and who is ultimately just an obtuse character. 2018 parents catastrophise, micro manage, project disaster, assume the worst, question everything, wonder to the solar system and back, worry themselves into illness themselves. The last article we read, podcast we hear, advert we see, conversation we have can spiral us out into fresh hell where our children are concerned. Are we part of the issue? Can you talk too much? Can you worry too much? Can you put words and thoughts and feelings into the little minds we are trying to protect? Possibly. There is no guidebook on how to deal with the mental health of our boys. And whilst being aware is so positive, it is also a huge undertaking that previous parents didn’t tackle.
If we go back 100 years, the way boys and men dealt with life was totally different. Nothing highlights this more than Peter Jackson’s documentary to mark 100 years since World War One, They Shall Not Grow Old. When the grainy black and white footage turns technicolour, it causes you to gasp. And as the voiceovers from veterans recorded in the 1960s plays over the footage of young male faces, it is terrifyingly apparent that the boys you are watching are no different to our boys of today. They are goofy, cheeky, cheery, up for it. They don’t complain. They get on with it. They endure foot rot, rats, tinned plum pudding, the stench of rotting flesh. They see men blown apart, one voice talking about how he saw the entire insides of another’s torso, “the best anatomy lesson”. They speak about killing the Jerrys with the same maturity as my ten year old would about playing Fortnite. There is a fervent sense of boys going forth, boys never floundering. Then they talk about afterwards – how no one asked them about it, how no one understood, how it was best not to discuss the things they had seen. And it struck me that, whilst these past generations may have been forced to be tougher, to get on with life, to push horrors into the darkened corners of their memories, this stiff upper lip mindset caused mental burden beyond all realms imaginable for the future sons of England.
What is the ultimate and finite formula to solving the Rubix cube that is male mental health? I am left feeling it is unforgivable boys 100 years ago had no one to talk to but that their life was simpler, less aware of others’ haves and have-nots. I am also left feeling thankful that boys of today don’t have to go to war in their teens but that their online visibility leaves them only ever able to feel less muscular, less wealthy, less successful, less amusing, less sexual, less because of being who they are. So, what is worse? I honestly can’t be sure…
I wrote this piece to highlight my personal views and experience of male mental health, my worries, my feelings. I have a responsibility for three men-to-be. And I know only too well what it is like to suffer with mental health issues myself, with depression and anxiety. I know mental health issues can be hereditary. I know there are mental health issues in my family (male suicide and schizophrenia) and in my husband’s (anorexia). I am acutely aware life won’t be one smooth, happy ride where my three boys are concerned. I cannot control their thoughts, feelings, experiences, futures. I can’t always be there to look after them, to kiss them better, to take away the rage or hurt in their hearts. But I can talk to them. I can listen. I can make them feel they can tell me ANYTHING. And when they do, I have the power to throw my mother badge into the trash and just be a friend. That is the one tool we have, the one tool that can make a difference when a boy or man is at his lowest ebb.
I will finish with one of the most upsetting cases I ever read. It was about a twenty-one-year-old man who drove home one Christmas and shot himself on the front doorstep on Christmas Eve. The reason? He was suffering with erectile dysfunction and he was too scared to talk to anyone about it. He was so worried he would never be able to have sex again that he decided to end his life. He was one of four children. The futility of this story haunts me to this day. All I can feel is that if only he’d felt he could talk about it, maybe things would have been different. The pressure of the penis can bury some forever beneath a homicidal rock.
I can’t predict the future. I can’t guarantee my sons will feel comfortable enough to talk to me, or to my husband, or to each other, or to friends about intimate worries such as things like the story above. But by God can I try to make it a possibility. For if we have learnt anything, it is that talking saves lives. The tiniest problem can seem global to the anxious male mind. No boy or man should ever have to feel unable to open up.
Talk to your sons, listen, always be a friend, always have a door that is open. And talk to your husbands, fathers, grandfathers, friends, colleagues. Question all heightened behaviours. Be someone who draws others to you and then ask them if they are okay – and really mean it. It’s the greatest thing you or anyone can do. It really can be the difference between someone wanting to live through the dark or not.