Mental health covers many different issues, from stress and loneliness, to more serious conditions like depression. For men specifically, our mental health has become a keen area of focus over the last ten years. The conversation is usually shaped around the importance of talking to our friends about our emotions, and moving away from the idea of the strong and silent man. However, if we want to encourage men, young and old, across Ireland to look after their mental health then we need to understand how we got to this point.
Opening up about emotions
For me, part of the problems is how young men are desensitised emotionally from an early age. We view the ability to bear pain and discomfort as qualities that are always admirable and sought after. It can be seen on the sports pitch, where players, despite being injured and in pain, are committed to carrying on. They need to show that they are tough, that they are strong and able to endure more than anyone else. These physical attitudes inevitably bleed into the psychological. How can you be open about your emotions when for so long the message has been that tolerating your pain in silence is to be praised?
Language around mental health
The language used to discuss mental health is also massively important. Yes we need to change the perceptions around mental health. However, are we equipped with the language to articulate our feelings? Culturally, we still carry the weight of behaviours built up over decades and generations. It is one thing to encourage men to talk about our mental health, but do we sometimes overlook the ways in which men communicate with each other. If we want men to feel more secure articulating their emotions, I think we need to equip them with the language needed for them to be express themselves, in a way that they are comfortable.
The phrase “Toxic Masculinity” has been coined to describe the aspects of masculinity that can have a damaging effect on both the individual and those around them. Often this phrase ends up being pounced on by those who claim there is a war on men carried out by “woke” social media users. I think that this tends to be a deliberate misreading of the points being made. There is no war against men, but what we are seeing is an attempt to examine how unrealistic expectations of men can lead to them being both the victims and perpetrators of damaging behaviours.
Education and empathy
As a society, we have seen a massive shift in our attitudes towards so many different issues. When it comes to mental health though we need to need more than slogans if we want to see real and lasting change. When trying to undo the damage caused by years of negative reinforcement, we need to offer people a way to look after their mental health in a positive and supportive environment.
For a young person today, who has adults in their lives who are not equipped to work through their own emotions, and lacks the ability to show young people a better way, it can feel overwhelming. It is a pattern that can stretch back over generations and it cannot be undone overnight.
Ultimately, I think the key to breaking that pattern is through education and empathy. That does not absolve anyone of the damage their actions have caused, but if you want to solve a problem you need to understand it. As young men we go through a variety of experiences that leave us ill equipped to manage the stresses of everyday life and overwhelmed when faced with its most extreme moments.
I have struggled to understand my emotions and behaviours at times, most of the time without even being aware of it. It can feel as if it is built into you, programmed into your brain. That does not need to be the case. Our capacity for change is enormous and with that it will always be possible to free ourselves from the expectations of the past.