Todays Guest Post is by the lovely Peter Shaw (@pjshaw192), I’m in love with his words and I am sure you will be too! The only way we can end Toxic Masculinity is by talking about it – which is what Peter is doing.
I have struggled with anxiety and depression for around 10 years now. I could talk for hours about the signs that I should have seen, and acted on in terms of getting help but didn’t.
When I was at school, mental health wasn’t something discussed, I don’t remember any lessons on mental health, mental illnesses and the importance of understanding mental health.
I didn’t get the chance to be visited by any of the amazing mental health charities that exist in England and go into schools delivering presentations and there were no mental health services available at my school.
If I ever felt nervous about going to school, I just had to get on with it and push through the misery. When I felt miserable, or anxious about going to school, I put my feelings down to puberty, being a miserable person and teenage angst. This was reinforced by teachers who never bothered to ask how I really was and my family who I never felt comfortable talking too about my issues.
I had a panic attack at sixth form, which ended with me throwing away my chances to finish and go to university, because I couldn’t enter the assembly room for an exam. I felt a complete failure as I walked home, and have to this day never told my family why I couldn’t do the exam. I made up an excuse that I couldn’t find the room and no-one was around for help but that was just one of many ways I covered up my real issues.
I carried on pretending I was ok, getting by despite having no connection with friends, isolating myself from the world and just going through life as it passed me by. When my dad passed away from terminal cancer in 2013, I took time out from university and got therapy for my grief.
I still had only a small understanding of my overall depression, had never heard of anxiety beyond it meaning nervousness and never considered there being anything wrong with having an inner monologue that verbally beat you up every day.
This has only recently changed, thanks to seeking out advice online, meeting great people to support me at my new university and volunteering with Time to Change. The latter has been absolutely crucial in me starting to acknowledge and understand the pain that anxiety and depression have caused for me in the past and actually look to try and do something about it.
I have learned self-care techniques, kept in contact with amazing friends for support, started writing a blog about my experiences and have gone to schools and conferences to share my story.
Volunteering has given me a new lease on life, but I was recently reminded of how fickle progress can seem with mental illness. In the last week, I have had one of the worst panic attacks I have had in years followed by a weekend when I felt suicidal and my thoughts started swirling about how I could hurt myself and maybe even end my life. I have tried through volunteering, CBT and medication to progress and tell myself my thoughts are wrong but it is so easy to slip back into a depressive state and have my self-esteem hit zero.
As a man, I know all too well the statistics around suicide for us and how suicide is the number one killer of men under 40. I also know all too well how easy as a man it is to say “I’m ok” or “I’m fine” when friends or family members ask how you are.
Even though I reached out online, which was an improvement from previous years, I still told my family I was fine and never mentioned these recent struggles to my close friends who I see in person. Why do we do this? Why am I so ashamed of my mental health struggles, compared with how easy it is to talk about my physical health issues?
Is it connected with being a man? For me, yes. I know women struggle with mental health issues hugely and have difficulties speaking out and being taken seriously when needing support, and I want to make it clear that I am not disparaging that. Rather, I am just trying to say there is something inherently wrong with masculinity when the biggest killer of men is ourselves.
It’s scary for me to think that there are all those diseases out there and yet the thing what kills us the most is ourselves and our own brain.
So what is wrong with men? For me, I think we are expected to be ok and we are taught from an early age to be stoic, tough and never show our feelings. If you show your feelings as a boy, you’re called names and outcast as either being feminine and/or homosexual.
It’s made clear to us from family, friends and even teachers that boys don’t cry, they don’t talk about their feelings and they plough on through life’s troubles regardless of their inner feelings.
This needs to be challenged and having experienced this and met other men who’ve experienced similar, I believe we have to do more as a society in bringing up boys by encouraging them to talk about their feelings and emotions and not associate these traits with femininity alone. If we can get boys talking and feeling open, then they will look for support when they need it.
Equally though, we need support networks there for both boys and girls, whether it’s counselling services, mental health care, peer support or lessons on mental health.
Too many children are going through life never talking about their mental health and never knowing the importance of treating mental health the same as physical health and this needs to be changed in our education system.
Ultimately we need to keep encouraging boys to be open and not feel ashamed of their mental health, in just the same way we should be encouraging everyone too. No-one should feel ashamed of their mental health and no boy or man should feel like they are a lesser man for having a mental illness.
Suicide should not be seen as the only solution for men or for anyone.