In advance of Heads Up’s Male Mental Health Awareness Week (13th-17th March 2017), 3rd year Billy Errington reminds us why it matters.
In a week where PM Theresa May announced much-needed reform of the approach taken by secondary schools towards mental health, it’s an encouraging sign that students in coming years will be taught the importance of recognising early warning signs of potential mental health issues in their peers. Getting this ‘mental health first aid’ ball rolling at an early age is, of course, a benefit for all involved, but why is it so crucial for young men to get to know their own mental health before the pressures of university and working life set in?
As is the case for many people who experience mental health issues, I first realised my OCD had become a problem around the age of 17, at the height of UCAS applications and planning for the future. In hindsight, perhaps the biggest barrier was not admitting this to myself, but expressing my concerns to others, particularly with other guys. There was a certain code I felt necessary to adhere to in order to save face so as to not threaten relationships and to avoid the embarrassment which came with trying to explain how you’re doing. What I soon found, however, was that my preconceptions of how people would react to a seemingly confident and hopeful young guy admitting he was going through a hard time were exactly that – irrational fears surrounding the endless what if’s of how people may respond on which anxiety feeds so well.
Deconstructing this “bro code” of avoiding concerns relating to mental distress starts with young men finding the courage to start an honest dialogue with their peers. Taking the time to ask how somebody’s doing or how they’re feeling, be it on the walk home from lectures or over a drink, could be the ten minutes that start or support someone’s road to recovery. University can at times feel like the most isolating of places, especially when you are experiencing mental health problems, but a little self-care goes a long way. One of the most important things young men can do to look after themselves is to talk to others, be they housemates, friends from back home or college staff. The temptation to self-medicate by indulging in risky behaviours such as drinking to excess can be avoided by recognising that it’s healthy to take time out for yourself when necessary, and certainly not a sign of weakness to admit this.
At the crux of this is the idea of challenging society’s model of masculinity which traditionally implies that a connection with one’s own feelings equates to being somehow weaker than other men. Increasing awareness of male mental health issues will combat the chronic under-diagnosis of psychiatric disorders among men given that only of all referrals to the IAPT service came from men, despite this group having considerably lower access to the social support of friends, relatives and community than women according to one report. We live in a generation equipped with the means of tackling mental health stigma among male youth, a well overdue opportunity to challenge the status quo of men “lacking the language to talk about their mental health” (CALM Masculinity Audit 2016). This study also revealed that a quarter of men feel physically unattractive and almost of gay men have reported episodes of feeling “very depressed” at some point in their lives.
In short, male mental health awareness week is an opportunity to educate and inform one another of how masculinity need not be a barrier to one’s own wellbeing. Take some time out, read, record thoughts and feelings in a journal, but above all, talk.
– P.S. here’s a shameless plug from myself from a few years ago. University has been a truly transformative experience for me – thankfully I’m happier, healthier in both my mind and body and also fixed my hair (debatable). Hopefully this week will encourage guys to start a conversation like I did in Fresher’s Week 2014.
Keep an eye on the Facebook page for more info about all we have going on for Male Mental Health Awareness Week- the last week of term.