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Men and barriers to health

I wrote this short blog for the British Association for Psychotherapists and Counsellors (BACP), published for Men's Health Awareness Month. The original article can be found here

Men’s mental health seldom makes the news. When it does, it can make for bleak reading. We read about men’s suicide rates being higher than any other group. 'There's a crisis in men’s mental health', articles inform us before seeming to disappear until the next report gets published, reminding us that men are suffering.

One of those reports, by the Samaritans, tells us that 15.8 men in every 100,000 will die by suicide. The female equivalent is 5.5 in 100,000 people. These numbers don’t include death by misadventure, meaning death by accident or deliberate risk-taking. For some men, their relationship with risky behaviour can be interpreted as a drive toward death by suicide, but we don’t have data on this.

The age of these men who die by suicide is less commonly discussed. Males aged 50–54 have the highest rate. Often, suicide is thought of as an adolescent thing. Something young girls do, along with self-harm. This social myth damages not only the men but also the young girls whose adolescent pain is genuine, and anyone else who uses self-harm to cope.

I would argue that the least talked about is what’s going on for men before they get to that crisis point. Before death by suicide feels like an option worth pursuing. This is because men are told not to talk about it. They're told this from an extremely early age, and they don’t stop being told it until the end of their lives. This creates a compounding and continual shutting down of personal expression. The following are some examples:

  • crying when your little sister punches you shows weakness

  • liking ‘Prince’ makes you a pouf

  • if you don’t make the football team, then I’m not proud of you

  • you’re always passed over for a promotion, why can’t you stand up for yourself

  • men should be providers; you’re a failure for being made redundant

Men might not hear all these messages throughout their life, but they will have heard enough by the time they're adults. Through this, they become able to internalise a warped and unachievable version of masculinity. That internalised masculinity can stay with men, causing them to hear an inner voice that criticises them constantly — it can be brutally punishing and says that they do not need personal expression. They don't need help from others for fear of seeming unmanly.

Most men will deal with a version of this on top of specific challenges to them and their identity. A trans man may also be traumatised by coming out to a transphobic family. Black men will face systematic oppression and stereotypes. Disabled men are almost invisible within society. Men across all socio-economic groups demonstrate unhealthy smoking, drinking and dietary patterns, and one in five men in the UK die before collecting their pension at 66.

Men’s barriers to accessing health are planted early and built upon with every myth and stigma reinforced by family, society, and men’s internal voice, pushing them to ignore any pain they feel. But as the statistics show, for some men, this leads them to a place where the only viable option is to take their own life.

I'd like to end this blog by inviting male readers to identify the last time you felt less than OK. This could be physically, mentally, or just something that felt a bit off. What did you do?

And why was that your decision?

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