8 – 14 May 2017 is Mental Health Awareness Week – 7 days – 7 blogs -7 Mental Health topics

Today – Men’s Mental Health

There has been a fair bit about Men’s Mental Health in the media recently, thanks in part to the likes of the young Royals speaking out and musicians such as Professor Green and Stormzy sharing their experiences. Recently footballer Aaron Lennon was detained under the Mental Health Act resulting in a number of famous males talking about their own battles with the demons.

I cannot speak with personal experience for obvious reasons, so this blog belongs to three amazing guys I know who are doing their very best to raise awareness of the fact that mental illness is NOT a female only problem.

Shawn has set up a Foundation, using his own experiences to help others. The Foundation’s Mission Statement reads – “To fight against Mental Health Stigma, promote change and inspire people to talk more openly about their problem”. His foundation can be found here – The Collins Foundation and includes many useful links and information, including an article titled “13 Things Men With Anxiety And Depression Want You To Know

Here is Shawn’s story –

My story begins back in 1986. I woke up to a really hot summers day, came down to get some breakfast and I remember seeing some bags beside the front door. I asked my mum what they were doing there, were we going on holiday I thought. My mum said that there is a man that is picking you up to take you away. I thought this meant holiday and was excited. The car pulled up I even remember it being a Ford Escort, dark blue. The man I later learned to be known as Mike, my social worker!

I went on to spend time in a children’s home. In the autumn of 1990 I was introduced to the Douglas family, an older couple with no children. I went from a children’s home to a large family home in the country, 2 donkeys, many birds and dogs. I had a massive room all to myself even a tv which was a big deal for a 10 year old who previously had never had his own anything never mind a tv. I had music, a stereo, hundreds of books, basically I was in heaven. My problems with trusting people had already begun to develop and anxiety crept in in the form of am I going to be taken again. I think this became a problem as my behaviour changed, I became an angry child from one that was mild mannered and quiet so it must have been hard for the Douglas’s. After just 12 months of having a fairy tale life I was yet again moved back into care. I was off to yet another family, the Cooks, who I got on with at times but had to contend with their 4 children who bullied me and made me feel like an outsider. A year past and yet again I’m on the move and this went on until age 16. At this point I was an absolute mess emotionally I left high school which was a struggle but managed somehow to come out with 9 GCSE’s.

I began to hang around with bad kids, I began stealing little things from shops and, all of which I see now was caused by repressed feelings, I went out purposely to look for fights with people.. It was a lonely existence at that time and all the problems I had manifested by anger and fear had almost taken my life. I tried to take my own life by drinking vodka and any tablets I could find, not caring anymore. I passed out at some point and woke up to being violently sick, the alcohol had somehow helped the tablets out to some extend so I spent 3 days locked away feeling awful and wishing it had worked. To me these feelings were very real I felt there was no way out and it was just the beginning of another 10 years of pain.

I moved to a hostel near my college so I was able to learn life skills, cooking for myself in a shared type hostel, basically a 3 bed terrace with an adult on site. This is where I began my relationship with drugs and alcohol, it seemed I’d found a way to block everything, go out and have fun, get in trouble and not care for the outcome. I filled my body for 5 years without many breaks all the time repressing all the anxiety and depression and whilst I was in a high it was great but as the years went on the lows became so bad again at aged 18 I tried to take my life, again with alcohol and tablets only this time I had access to a full cupboard of prescription drugs and proceeded to swallow as many as I could.

I met my now partner at work, she has had to endure my journey to recovery and to be frank has put up with more than any person should so I’m lucky to have found her. Today I still suffer anxiety but control things better by looking forward not back and understanding the issues. I have several techniques to stop the arguments and to deal with my own feelings, I share what I’m feeling more so that it doesn’t build up causing a bigger argument I’m able to address things as they happen.

Daniel is a University student who writes his own blog and runs a website with the tag line “Bringing good news and positivity to a world filled with negativity” – the link is here – Daniel Codd

Daniel shares how he’s learnt to accept that his negative emotions need to be felt, but that they don’t need to rule his life –

The most influential advice I received from my therapist was “it’s okay to feel negative emotions”. I didn’t understand what she meant at first, of course it’s okay, but It took me a few years to realise that every time I felt bad I always tried to change my state. Quick go to the gym. Quick drink a few beers. Quick (insert activity that avoids experiencing the negative emotions) if I didn’t try and change my state I would wallow in it. I would sit and fester with these emotions and hate myself for feeling them. Alternatively I would tell myself that I wasn’t even feeling bad, that “others have it much worse” or another common phrase to try and convince myself I wasn’t actually in a bad way.

The day I started to get better was the day I realised “it’s okay to feel negative emotions” I mean the day I truly REALISED it was okay. The day I started to accept my emotions for what they were. It’s actually a lesson I learnt from meditation but luckily you don’t have to be a monk to understand or benefit from it. It comes in the form of a metaphor, usually referring to thoughts but it works just as well for emotions, I’ll lay it out here: try not to judge your emotions, just observe them. Don’t try to fight with them, don’t try to outrun them, don’t try and minimise their severity. Don’t try. Just observe. Just sit and watch your emotions like passing clouds on a bright day. The clouds come but they also leave. Some days will be cloudier than others but the clouds always leave. No emotion is constant. No emotion stays with us permanently. We may experience prolonged fleeting bouts of the same emotion over and over again so it appears constant, but when you really sit and observe, you notice it comes and goes. Like the clouds we have very little control. And that’s okay. We can’t control the emotions we feel, we can only control how we act on them. Don’t judge your emotions because they are what they are. Just observe them. They come and they go. Like passing clouds in the sky.”

Now when I feel in a bad way, I just observe. “Oh look, I’m not actually feeling too great today. That’s okay it’ll pass” I do look to ensure I’m eating right and going to bed at roughly the same time as those things really help regulate emotions but I no longer try to avoid feeling bad. I perceive my emotions like the clouds in the sky and my days are brighter.

Aron is a Mental Health Advocate and Author. I contributed to one of his books and he runs a website with the same title – A Day In My Head

Here, Aron speaks about his experiences living with OCD –

Let me be clear: mental illness is a lottery. It is, as the late Sally Brampton once described it; “An illness. That is its beginning and end. It is neither a moral flaw nor an immoral statement… It is no respecter of type. Or gender. Or class. Or money. Or success.”

“Man up”; “Are you a man or a mouse”; “Be a man”. These phrases, pithy but more loaded than a delaware potato skin filled with cheese and bacon, are a fact of life for most young males; often ignored or discounted entirely from discussions on wellbeing. It is not something, for example, you hear said to girls – ‘be a woman’ – but boys must somehow manage their affairs successfully and without fuss from an early age. The male is instructed to be tough, brave, stoic… 

“There is nothing either so good or bad,” Shakespeare, much influenced by the philosophy of stoicism, writes in Hamlet, “but thinking makes it so.”

Humouring Shakespeare briefly, I might in fact loosely even fit the stoic male description: “Bearded like the pard” and “sudden and quick in quarrel” ( I have a scruffy, variegated beard and can be incredibly grumpy). Nevertheless, I know I do not conform to Shakespeare’s ultimate categorisation of man. Awful enough at Stage 3 as ‘the lover’, I am perhaps doing even worse with Shakespeare’s 4th Age of Man; the bold and fearless soldier. And as for the so-called ‘bubble reputation’, it is something I have always been wary of (for fear of the prick) but I do my best – and in so far as I can be sure of anything, I don’t think I’ve majorly let anybody down. Though this rational assertion often comes into direct conflict with my OCD, which would regularly have me believe otherwise.

My own OCD has been tough and, when I look back now, has tainted nearly every one of my formative encounters. For  example, my first experience as someone’s ‘boyfriend’ consisted or me largely trying to convince myself I would not accidently commit some kind of sexual assault. How would I know if she were consenting? What if she was too drunk one night and I didn’t pick up on it? What would happen if, while cuddling, I accidentally rolled over and penetrated her with no warning (and therefore consent)?

This form of moral OCD – which particularly fixes itself around sexual morality – is common in both males and females. Indeed, according to Gordon, W.M. in his paper Sexual obsessions and OCD, women and men seem to be affected by this sub-type equally. The difference is the way women are treated at a societal level. Men are the rapists; the users; the players; the cheaters; the predators; the monsters. Culturally, they will automatically elicit less sympathy. The tough thing about objective morality is that it simply doesn’t exist. And this, added to the way in which men are tacitly dissuaded to seek help (as it makes them look weak), makes this form of OCD in particular a difficult one to talk about and, crucially, to get help for.

 Yet all has certainly not been lost for me personally. Ten years following my initial diagnoses, I can honestly say I am happy and well cared for. Though, in some ways, this is largely down to luck. For I am blessed to have a rather unique preponderance of close female friends who, merely by virtue of their presence, dispel the otherwise darkened myth that I might be some form of sexual threat. But more importantly is the straightforward fact that the girls in my life have always been much easier to talk to (which, of course, goes back to the root of the problem).

According to Barbara J.Bank and Suzanne L. Hansford, “men’s same sex friendships, even their best friendships, are less intimate and supportive than women’s.” While, according to a study into the relationship between male and female adolescents’ friendships by Zsuzsanna Kirally, “the strongest gender differences emerged… for the negatively toned emotions of anxiety, apathy, depression, and fear. Male adolescents were rarely disclosing any of their feelings both in their same-sex and opposite-sex friendship relations.”

The male experience of mental illness is, at present, complex. There is a compounded fear encircling conditions such as depression and OCD. The fear of the fear. The fear of stigma. The fear of being seen as dangerous, weak, pathetic or immoral.  It is a sad fact that unless or until we learn to effectively encourage young males to start talking and opening up, we may never see a decrease in the grossly inflated incidents of self-slaughter for reasons of cerebral imbalance. Which, alongside the effects of global warming and terrorism, would be undoubtedly one of the biggest global travesties of our era.

“Canst thou not minister to a mind diseas’d?”, asks Shakespeare’s Macbeth. And of course, the answer to that, more so now than ever, is “yes!” But only if one is brave enough to come forward; to stand up and ‘be a man’; to risk asking another human being for the help they so desperately need … to be well.

My enormous thanks and love to Shawn, Daniel and Aron for sharing their experiences with me to help raise awareness.

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