Each year, thousands of men take their own lives, many of them suffering in silence rather than talking about their problems. How can we challenge the deadly stereotypes that teach men and boys that showing emotion is unmanly? This urgent question was addressed at the ManMade conference this week.
The conference was organised by Midlands-based social enterprises Forward for Life and Common Unity. Together, they conceptualised, designed and delivered ManMade, an innovative peer-led support service aimed at reducing male suicide. Initially piloted and recommissioned in the Midlands, the developers of ManMade are looking to establish it as an approach further afield. We recently evaluated a version of the programme delivered in Sandwell in partnership with Family Action children’s centres.
The day was extremely moving. It featured inspiring first-hand accounts of men’s journeys through mental ill-health by Johnny Benjamin and Rohan Kallicharan. It also showcased creative and impassioned approaches to supporting vulnerable men.
For me, the day illustrated two important imperatives: to challenge systemic social and cultural norms that give rise to male mental ill-health, and to look at our behaviour and interactions on a micro level to create empathic, progressive communities. It also led me to ponder what the tragic phenomenon of male suicide might mean for how we understand and approach the campaign for gender equality.
As highlighted by many of the speakers, prescriptive gender stereotyping permeates our society. It teaches men and boys that showing emotion is unmanly and therefore undesirable. This leads countless men to suffer in silence, with catastrophic effects: suicide is the single biggest cause of death in men under 45 in the UK.
What can we do about this? Part of the solution lies in challenging these messages, enabling boys and men to construct new concepts of masculinity that accept their full range of emotions. In other words, creating male identities which permit men to ask for help. This is precisely the approach taken by ManMade as well as UK charity The GREAT Initiative’s Great Men Project, who we are also working with. The project works with boys in schools to help them to understand the link between idealised male identity and male mental ill-health and suicide. This paves the way for alternative masculinities to take root that enable men to recognise and express vulnerability.
It also struck me at the conference that a simple human act of empathy can make all the difference. As Jamie Harrington and Johnny Benjamin explained, simply asking someone if they are ok can change or even save a life. It’s these personal interactions that shape our world on a day-to-day level. By taking responsibility for our own actions and reaching out to those in need (be it friend or stranger) we can create empathic and supportive communities. And exposure to attitudes and behaviours which challenge entrenched gender norms and mental health stigma may give us all permission to transcend them too.
So what does all this mean for gender equality? With high rates of male suicide, is the shoe now on the other foot? I’d argue not: you don’t have to look far to see that sexism is rife in our media and institutions, be it the marginalisation of women in academia or the sexual objectification of women on our screens and magazines. But it does point to a need to recognise that gender stereotypes are harmful for men as well as women, and that gender norms affect how we experience our mental health. Recent research by Professor Daniel Freeman shows that common mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety are more common in women. This may relate to the ways that women’s experiences are also shaped by gender norms. Alarming rates of domestic and sexual violence disproportionately affect women, and the incessant pervasive social scrutiny of women’s looks and behaviour doubtlessly affect their self-esteem. But perhaps greater permission for women to ask for help means that fewer cases lead to suicide.
Primarily the differences in experiences of mental health highlight that, despite the privileges men still experience, constricting anyone to a stereotype has harmful effects. And for men, this stereotype actively suggests that men shouldn’t be vulnerable. At the same time, this stereotype’s counterparts, that men should be aggressive and sexually virile, normalise the objectification of women and male violence against them. When understood in this way, we can see that these norms and their interdependence need to be challenged if both women and men are to be free from the harms they give rise to.
By telling a new story of gender in our communities, our institutions and our media, as well as challenging the universal stigma associated with mental health, all of us can flourish.
Here are some great projects highlighted at the conference which are working on male mental health:
And of course, the ManMade programme itself: a holistic, tailored eight week programme of workshop sessions designed to support and empower unemployed men to take care of their own mental health and wellbeing through peer discussion, information sharing and self-reflection.