Does Mental Health Get a Free Pass?
Yes, it does. Thanks for reading.
Nah, not really, come back. I'm not really finished, but it's a question that has been on my mind recently. I think it's fairly obvious from reading our website and / or social media, that our default position is a fairly positive one, so it's a little unusual for us to be anything but optimistic, but it's something I think we need to address. Before we get started though.....
Picture the scene. President Trump and the beloved Katie Hopkins are holding a joint press conference. A press conference together we mean, not one specifically on joints. I know, I know, but go with us on this one. The dynamic duo are doing a talk because they've cracked mental health and how to reduce suicide. The world's press are in attendance. Their solution is simple. I can't wait for this...anticipation is at fever-pitch.
They step up to address the masses. "All you have to do" says President Trump, "is just talk, OK?". "Hurrah" says Katie. Mic drop and they walk off, satisfied with a job well done. The crowd go wild, no-one questions it. Acceptance is universal as suicide rates drop around the world and we're all completely satisfied with their bullet-proof plan.
OK, it's a bit far-fetched, Katie would never say "Hurrah" and we're pretty sure the world wouldn't be satisfied. In fact it would erupt with withering put-downs and sarcarstic messages of just why it's not that simple and those two idiots are missing the point and it would never work. Fancy thinking you can condense human nature so simplistic psychology What a pair of plonkers huh!
The things is, it struck me recently that mental health and the surrounding periphery is probably one of the few (maybe the only) 'industry' (note the inverted commas) where the messages that filter down from our faceless, corporate-funded, multi-million pound overlords (aka large mental health charities and CCGs which are generally not related to Trump or Hopkins) are so widely embraced, let alone questioned. We just blindly take it in. We absorb it. It must be the right thing because they said it, so we follow along. We never questioning it for fear of appearing trite or controversial, or maybe it's just the pack mentality.
Is it because there's simply no alternative, or is it because they're right and we're done? Is it the apex of mental health support and if so, who said so?
Whatever the message is, no matter how many times they've repackaged it to seem new (in the case of men's mental health it will invariably be something about it being 'ok to talk'.) it's still the same-ole-same-ole at its core. It's OK to talk? Is it? In other breaking news, water is wet.
Let's take the relatively recent 'In Your Corner' campaign from Time To Change. You remember that don't you? It was about men's mental health predominately, so obviously, it was based around talking being OK. There's a shock.
I like to think that the premise of the idea, floated at the meeting with the expensive creative types, probably based in Shoreditch, seemed fairly straight-forward. It probably went something like this "Let's show in the most obvious way that blokes, cause they're a bit thick, need to be further victimised about suicide. We know male suicide is high, but the thing is, it's their fault. If only they'd talk about how they feel they'd be ok, the big stubborn idiots. Everyone happy? Right, we're done. Send the invoice and stick an extra zero on the end for good measure.".
OK, maybe it didn't go exactly like that, but hey, maybe it did! You weren't there! ;-) Seriously though, the crux of the campaign seems to be that you need to look out for your mate if they're looking a bit 'out of sorts'. Fair enough, I hear you sigh. Let's follow along, never fearing to question it. Imagine if ol' Trump came up with it. What do think the comments would be then?
Now, as a middle-aged, often suicidal, overweight, slightly-greying but still possessing strangely attractive sensibilities, when I first saw the 'In Your Corner' campaign, it pissed me off. To me, it didn't say "look out for your mates", no, it said something else. To me, it said "You know you? Well, you're a bit of a shit mate aren't you? Come on, admit it, you are. We all know it, if we're being honest, and if you ARE actually a good friend, then you've clearly got some shit friends, because we have to come along and tell them how to be a good one".
A quick word to the wise. I don't need to be told that if my mate is looking a bit out of sorts that I should check he's OK. You know why? Cause he's my MATE! Here's another note to add. My mates don't need to be told to look out for me when I'm struggling. You know why? Because they're my friends, and that's what friends do! To clarify, we're not talking about Facebook friends here either. Most of them don't give a shit about you (or you them). We're talking about actual friendships you have with other human beings you see on a regular basis and didn't meet for 5 minutes once. Now I don't know about you, but if your friends have to be told how to be your mate by a faceless organisation then you need to get some better friends, and if you need to be told, then you need to up your bloody game mate.
That seemed obvious to me and yet, go online and people were retweeting it, liking it, in fact, they were bloody loving it. Companies are loving it because they generally don't have a clue what to do in terms of mental health, so it seems as good a message as any other. God forbid they have the time or resoures to come up with anything else anyway.
"Doris, print some of those leaflets 'In Your Corner' leaflets out and stick them everywhere".
"OK, but have we actually thought about what they're tryi...." .
"Just print them woman! Mental health, blah, blah, need to be seen to be doing something, etc. etc".
Is it me (and the possible inclusion of Doris) or are we just incapable of collectively saying "Errrr, hang on a minute..." Do we fear to question what is fed to us by mental health institutions? Do we have to take it because 'stigma' is the enemy and we can't question anything else? Is mental health so black and white that sprawling generalisations are the only acceptable currency? If so, I want my money back.
Let's look at stigma for a minute. Boooo, hiss stigma right? If you take a look at our site, we hardly feature anything about stigma. We don't run any sort of patronising 'anti-stigma' group giving grown adults tasks to do, like their on a school project. We don't mention it, not because it doesn't exist, but because we don't want to give it any more power.
In fact, my ideal anti-stigma billboard would be a huge poster with huge white, bold text on a black background that simply says "If you discriminate against people who have a mental illness, you're a fucking ignorant idiot." Who'd want to be in that camp? Exactly. OK, so the Advertising Standards Agency might have some issues with the wording, but why should they stigmatise me? Bastards.
As we don't have the money for that kind of campaign, instead, we treat people who stigmatise against mental illness like racists or homophobes or Islamophobes or people who think Katie Hopkins and Donald Trump make quite the power couple. You know, morons and yet, stigma has been so ingrained in our community that people hide behind aliases, pseudonyms and faceless profile pictures because of it. What do you think would happen if people who live in fear of it, all collectively came out of the stigmatising closet? Mass ridicule or mass support? Yeah, us too, but there they stay.
There's even a multi-million pound charity devoted to ending stigma. Before they can do that though, they have to keep convincing us that it's bloody everywhere. I mean you were in charge of it and it was your job to work towards eliminating it entirely and your highly-paid livelihood (not to mention all that sweet funding) and that of hundreds of employees were dependant on it, how hard would you work to remove it? If your job was to paint the Forth Road Bridge and once completed, you didn't get to start again, but it was back to the dole queue with you. If that was the case, how quickly would you move that brush Mr. Miyagi-style every day? Exactly.
We all seem to talk about removing stigma like it's a future task. You hear it all the time - "let's make talking about mental health an everyday topic". OK, great. When? Tomorrow? A week on Thursday? 2023? Why isn't it that now? Why can't we just accept that right here, right now, talking about your mental health IS an every day subject. It is for us. Let's change the narrative. Why does it have to be a goal for tomorrow? You know what they say about tomorrow....
As a society, we seem to be moving to a world that's polarised, one that's becoming increasingly binary (great if you're a programmer with an eye on making The Matrix a reality, but not much fun for the rest of us).
You're either this or you're that. You're either in or you're out. You're either black or you're white. Life isn't like that though, and mental illness certainly isn't. It's nuanced, it's layed, it's bloody hard enough to navigate at the best of times, but one thing it shouldn't be is safe or sichophantic. It needs to address all aspects, all facets and all opinions, because we're all different.
Questioning something doesn't make you 'anti-' that thing. We're not 'anti-In Your Corner', we just think it treats men the same. The more we hear "yeah, but men don't talk do they", the more men succumb to the stereotype instead of defying it. If you think they don't, come along to any one of our SpeakEasy groups. We'll bet you good money that they do.
Suicide is the biggest killer of men aged under 45 and further research shows that only 34% of men say they would talk openly about their feelings, while around 31% said they would be embarrassed to seek help for a mental health problem. I bet you're eyes are drawn to the last statistic there, weren't they. My eyes see that more people would talk than wouldn't, but let's go with you. Why is that? It's not because men don't want to talk about it, trust us getting guys to talk is not a problem, although getting them to shut up sometimes is. If you think disagree, then again, the invitation is open to come along to one of our SpeakEasy groups and we'll prove you wrong.
Maybe they feel embarassed because of the environment and atmosphere most organisations create for them. Having been through 'the system', as a bloke, trust me when I say that, in my experience, nothing they do is condusive to having those conversations and all reason and logic goes out the window. Men as treated as if their masculinity doesn't and shouldn't mean anything. A person's gender makes no difference to the type of support they get. How odd.
No, if men don't talk, it's because we have created a society, a culture that wouldn't show them any respect them if they did talk. On one hand we want to them to talk, but on the other, as a society, we also want them to shut-up because they're the hunter-gatherer, the alpha male, the 'man of the house', the strong-silent-type. Man-up snowflake. Fuck all of that. One of them things needs to change quickly... and it's not the men.
Do you wonder why, after all these years, we haven't got anything better to offer guys than 'It's OK to talk'? The thing is, it IS OK to talk, but it always has been. Talking is meaningless without an accompanying 'It's OK to listen' campaign. No man sees any kind of 'OK to talk' campaign and suddenly has a lightbulb moment. No-one thinks "Is it really? Wow, Who knew! Right, here we go then". If they go into work and confide in colleagues or the lads in the pub, but instead get ridiculed or called a 'snowflake' because of the society we've created, then all of a sudden it won't seem like it's ok to talk at all. In fact it'll be the last time they talk to anyone about it. It's our society, not men, that needs to change. What a lovely segway.
When it comes to men's mental health, then the world does get polarised. It does get divided into one of two 'camps'. The most popular one is Camp 1 which becomes 'Let's change men and let's change masculinity', and by 'change' they mean 'ignore'. Let's make them talk about their feelings and let's treat them like everyone else and forget that they're men at all. We're certainly not going to acknowledge their manliness or accept their masculinity in how we engage with them. Pfft. Sod that. Pale green flyers with serif fonts spouting uninspired text and lets-not-excite-or-engage-anyone imagery? Yes please.
Instead, all the men have to do is just start opening up cause they're all a bunch of emotionally illiterate drones and it's a job well done. Everyone (well almost everyone) goes to Camp 1 and pitches tent on a long-term lease, because it sounds easier and it's cheaper and more instantly doable. It sounds achieveable too doesn't it. It sounds more 'OK' and more.... 'talky'.
Camp 2 is much more deserted, there aren't too many other people here, except us of course. Our little stretch of heaven boils down to changing society's attitudes to what a 'man' is (or should be perceived to be) but not to igonre or change it, but instead to respect it. It's about being atuned to what a man (not men) needs. It's about communicating with them differently, responding to their distress differently, and respecting and honouring them as men. Yes, men - I know right - and all the multitude of idiosyncracies that come with it.
You'll often see people (usually 'celebrities') say things like "it's not brave to talk about your mental health, it should be normal". Usually followed by gushing retweets of people who think they're awesome for one reason or another. The thing is, for some people, talking about your mental health IS brave. It's all about context. It IS a huge step for some and you know what, that's ok. We shouldn't put them on pedestals and forget about all the other men who live in silence. This Morning once called a man who talked about his mental health on one of their phone-ins, 'a hero'. He wasn't. He's a guy talking about his mental health, We all have it, as we do physical health. Those people who don't talk aren't any kind of 'anti-hero'. I understand what they were trying to do, but no man who was watching where thinking "Awww, I want to be called a hero too". People do what's right for them at the time.
It's not there to be demonised or patronised. It's not to be determined by who someone who happens to have a lot of followers because they wrote a book, starred in a film or sang a song what is and isn't 'brave' because they want a level playing field. The person with 'x' number of followers doesn't get to decry what we all should feel. They do though. The use the power the have without forethought. We are all different, we're not one thing or the other. One man's step is another man's Everest and there are 8848 metres of other opinions that are also perfectly valid.
Camp 1 can't work because it does some very basic things wrong, not that anyone pays attention. It mistakes stereotypes for archetypes, it reinforces the negative attitudes to masculinty and it blames the victim. Yes, the victim. Take a moment to think about most men's 'OK to talk' campaigns. What is it they're really saying? Is it just "come on lads, talk about how you feel"? or are they blaming the victims of suicide (who are mostly men). Are there another social groups what would tolerate something so chiding or so judgmental? Would an anti-rape campaign get away with saying "well ladies, if you'd just stay in with a pizza instead of going out". Of course not. You don't change anything by blaming the victims because that's not your problem, but hey lads, if only you'd just talk about stuff instead of being stubborn blocks of wood you wouldn't be killing yourselves would you!
Mental heallth needs to be talked about. Of course it does, but men know that already, but what they lack, at least in our experience, is a space to talk. Not a room in a mental health service or a dusty church hall or community centre. A place that makes them feel vindicated, valued, respected and listened to. A place where it's more important to get alongside them, rather than inside their head. One that respects who they are, their masculinary and their place in THEIR world, not a place in unrealistic utopia where we're all the same. It's time to focus on their story, not their feelings. Don't make them talk, instead give them a place where they want to talk.
We need to build this, not in one or two places once a week, but everywhere, all the time. The whole 'It's OK to talk' thing is fine, but it's not enough. Not nearly enough. You don't need to be Donal Trump or Katie Hopkins to work that out.
We need to expect more from organisations and from their services and campaigns, ours included. We're not say 'we're right and everyone else is wrong', but at the moment, all the things we, as a community, think are right simply aren't working. Why are things that are universally acclaimed not held to account for making too little difference?
We need to demand more from services. They don't have a given right to know what you want. Of course, we know funding is tight and resources are scarce, but shouldn't be an excuse, quite the opposite. It's a reason to do something different, to think outside the box because there are too many people ending up inside one, to just repackage the same thing and call it something else. It's time to start helping 'people', not just 'your people'. Share, promote and champion each other. Collaboration, not competion.
We all have to question things. We have to ask the difficult questions. Why do we just accept it so easily? Is mental health the only area of medicine that humans have perfected? No, I don't think so either, so why do we get the same thing over and over again?
Critiquing doesn't mean you think it's crap. It means you think it can, could and should be better, because it always can be. I'm sick to death of banal generalities, especially when it comes to men's mental health. I deserve better. You deserve better. The friends and families of lost loved ones deserve better. We all deserve better.
Does mental health get a free pass? Yes, but the cost we are paying is too high for that to continue. Thanks for reading. Phew. That feels better.
What do you think? Does it get a free pass or have we reached the pinnacle of mental health support and set up camp?. Let us know in the comments below.