I have two questions for you. First one: if there was a dodgy step on the staircase in your house, how long would it take you to fix it? Let’s say that the step itself is mostly irritating, but occasionally dangerous. You have to remember to jump over it every time you go up or down stairs, but sometimes you forget and your foot just plunges straight through, causing you to twist your ankle, or worse. When close friends and lovers come round to visit you, they often get trapped by your dodgy step, then extract themselves and help you patch it up. Most of them recommend you call a carpenter. So, first question is: how long would it take you to get it fixed? Question two: how’s your mental health lately?
I’m in my mid thirties now, and I’ve had quite a lot of counselling. It took me a while to ask for it, at first. I kept telling myself that I didn’t really have a proper problem, I was just stressed. I led a busy life, with a few complications (Hello, double life as an anonymous sex blogger!), and that’s why I used to cry so often. Panic so frequently. Vomit for no good reason.
Then, one day, I went to the doctor. The doctor referred me to counselling, which put me on a path to getting better. She didn’t magically fix me, though. I’ve talked quite a lot about the first time I had a breakdown and had to do a lot of work on myself (buy my second book, innit), but I haven’t talked much about how I became utterly fucked again at the start of 2018, and the fact that I basically put my foot straight through the dodgy staircase again. The short version is I dropped quite a large amount of work last year to try and minimise my anxiety, while doing a lot of counselling to scrape my way back to the good place I was in a couple of years ago.
What’s this got to do with the dodgy step on your staircase? I’m hoping that most of you read the example and thought ‘well OK, so that’s annoying – if I had the money/time to do it then of course I’d get it fixed as soon as I could!’ If it’s a dodgy staircase, or a broken leg, most of us would admit we couldn’t fix it on our own. But with mental health, it’s a different story.
Men find it hard to seek help with their mental health
Now that I’m in my mid thirties, in a friendship group that is pretty good about talking about mental health, a massive divide seems to have appeared – a distinctly gendered one. Of the women I know who have struggled with mental health, all of them have had help of some kind. Via doctors, where they’re usually offered tablets or CBT from the NHS, or via a private counsellor or therapist who can help them work through their problems.
A lot of us have problems, by the way. They are not uncommon. Just as very few people will get to my age without seeing the inside of a hospital once or twice, so few people will reach their mid thirties without accumulating some mental or emotional struggles too. So why is it usually only women who’ll ask for help in dealing with them?
The men I know who have difficulties are reluctant to ask. In fact, ‘reluctant’ is an understatement. Men who ask me for advice will usually – swiftly and definitively – reject any suggestion of counselling the second the word has escaped my lips. This will sound obvious to many of you. You’ll have heard the stats that men are far less likely to seek mental health support. They are also at much higher risk of suicide. Feeling unable to seek help is not only a persistent, common problem for men, it is also literally killing them. As if that step in your house could one day disappear completely, and you’d plunge to your actual death.
When we talk about men and mental health we often highlight the damaging things that have led so many men to this place: the idea that you should ‘man up’ or that ‘boys don’t cry’, which imply that you’re best off just pushing everything deep down below the surface so no one knows you suffer. You probably know that the idea that men must always be protectors is incredibly damaging. Less often mentioned, but equally important, is the fact that it’s also complete bollocks: the myth of the male protector is not only untrue, but impossible. You are a human being, and you have needs. Like you need food and water and shelter, so you also need comfort and solace and someone to talk to. You sometimes need help.
What stops men asking for help with mental health?
It would be callous of me to talk about mental health without noting that there are some significant barriers to access. On a practical level, it is not affordable for everyone, though it should be, and it requires a fairly significant commitment of time and energy that not all of us have readily to hand. But the men in my life who need help generally aren’t hurting for time or money – they just point-blank refuse. There’s something bigger standing in the way, and they cannot get around it.
So in times of help, men we love come to us – their friends. Usually, thanks to the ‘men shouldn’t display emotions because it looks unmanly’ bollocks, the people they seek help from are often the women in their lives. Hopefully we listen and we tell them we love them, and sometimes we recommend they find a therapist. Because the truth is that while we may want to help, we are often vastly, vastly unqualified. I’m sitting here on your stairs faffing around with a hammer and nails, but all I’m really doing is making a temporary cover for this gaping big hole in the staircase. I can try, and I will try, and I will keep on trying whenever you need me, but I would also like – really like – for you to take me seriously when I tell you to call a professional.
There’s another argument I’ve heard from many women, that men’s failure to seek help for mental health problems is centred around selfishness or entitlement. That many men have an expectation that women will do emotional labour that you could otherwise pay a therapist for, or deal with the fallout when your repressed problems bubble up to the surface and cause harm. Summed up succinctly by the Onion article that inspired today’s post:
There’s truth in this, but it’s not helpful to harp on about it, because there will be guys reading this article who are struggling to ask for help and for whom the ‘stop leaning on your female friends, you selfish prick!’ argument will do far more harm than good. The fact is, it’s not selfish to ask your friends for help, it’s natural. But if you ask your friends for help, sometimes you need to realise that no matter how much they want to help you, they are not necessarily able to. When my own friends come to me to ask, the last thought on my mind is ‘God, how laborious! What a selfish bellend!’ What I’m feeling, in fact, is despair. Despair that I cannot help them, though I desperately want to, because the only thing I think will make a difference is the one thing they’ve ruled out.
If you’re struggling, it may well be that your friends can only help so far. There are certain questions and techniques and thoughts that will only really come out when a trained professional prods at the right bits of your brain. There are some difficulties that you may not even know how to articulate. It won’t be true for everyone, but it was true for me. And if you’re feeling like shit, and you can afford it, and you’ve a spare hour once a week then well… it’s got to be worth a try, right?
I wish I knew the answer, but I don’t
I want to end this post with a suggestion or idea or a call to action. I’ve thrown in all the arguments I can think of off the top of my head to persuade men that professional mental health support might be beneficial. But in all honesty I’ve no idea how to do this: I have failed spectacularly in my personal life, so there’s nothing that makes me believe I might succeed here instead. Men are nervous of speaking to a counsellor. They don’t want to commit to weeks of it. They’ve not been diagnosed so there simply can’t be a problem. It’ll all be OK if they get a new job/more money/a better place to live/a partner.
Are any men reading this and thinking ‘hmm, yeah I guess I could actually do with talking through some stuff with a professional’? The answer is probably ‘no.’ The answer has been ‘no’ nearly every single time I talk to a guy friend in real life about it, so I can’t see why today would be any different. But I’m going to keep trying anyway, because one time in real life, the answer turned out to be ‘yes.’
So although this post has sat in drafts for months, I’m finally ready to publish it. Not because I think it’s good, or because I can’t still see the gaping flaws in it – like the fact that I’m repeating the same old tired arguments and expecting the result to be different. I’m publishing it purely on the off-chance that one person will read it and think: ‘yes.’ That someone may stumble across this post and realise that the turmoil in their head might just be worth attending to. Understand that there’s no shame in seeking help if life is getting hard. That you don’t need to do this on your own.
I will fail nearly every time I do this. But I’ll keep trying, because it’s important. You are important.
(These are UK organisations and websites – if you’d like to suggest others for other countries, please do drop them in the comments. Comments with links are pre-moderated but I’ll aim to approve as soon as I can. If you’re a guy who has had mental health support and found it useful, and you’re willing to share your experience, I would love to hear more about it in the comments too)