Years ago, I read an account (in a US publication) of work with men against heart disease. Treatment helped, changing diet helped but the quantifiable difference was in the men who attended a support group, an informal group therapy, professionally led so nobody could hog the floor, in which they spoke about their lives. Many of the them were blue collar (why is that a much nicer term than “working class”?), hardworking and they didn’t find talking about feelings easy. But when they got to it, found themselves among their peers and located common ground, a once a week meeting was really helpful. That once a week continuum is important. In six weeks you can sell your house and go to Peru but it won’t deal with how you feel. A week is long enough to wait, to deal with, time for things to move, to survive if nothing does.
The price for men’s silence is high. Suicide remains the biggest cause of death in men under the age of 45 and three quarters of recorded suicides in the UK are among men. The stiff upper lip comes at a price. And “cope” is a four letter word. There have been various men who have gone public and talked about depression and anxiety. It’s only a week ago we heard that young women are increasingly suffering from anxiety. If you want to make a generalisation (risky things, generalisations) young women turn to the world to measure their pain and young men turn away from it. Both try to say that nothing is wrong, they’re all right really, while suffering feelings for which they have no useful names. I say no useful names because if you are measuring yourself against some kind of modern celebrity, vocabulary dissembles. Communication may be what everybody bangs on about but the real stuff is pretty thin on the ground.
Young men and depression are enveloped in a sulphurous cloud of silence. As was said in the First World War, “play up, play up and play the game” – never mind what it costs and what it costs is horrible. Very often they are successfully socialised into competitive sport which is only emotional when you’re winning, doing the right thing, being one of the lads. If you are depressed, this creates a split between how you seem and how you feel – and you don’t have any words for how you feel anyway. So now you not only have to acknowledge to yourself that you feel empty , shattered, cut off, numb but to conceal it – and proceed as if you are OK, for fear of being seen as “down” or “a loser”. That they carry on living with this divide at all is remarkable, that they do it for so long is worrying. This kind of loneliness is first cousin to alienation and neither help depression.
So here’s to the guys who have “gone public”, who have named themselves and talked about depression, antidepressants, therapies and kinship. They are truly new men because they have discovered that the old way simply doesn’t work. In a week when the US presidential candidate Donald Trump tried to tell us that behaving like a boor is being one helluva man, other young men can assert there is nothing wrong with their masculinity thank you, they have something else to worry about and acknowledging it is the only way forward.
Like lots of us, I long for the old certainties, when you lived a simpler life and it was better for your soul. But this I know and I don’t know much: there is no going back. You can be influenced by what went before, you can learn from it but the way you live meaningfully is in the present. Sometimes you have to face hard truths about yourself, sometimes you have to be disabused of what you think you have discovered – and learn something else. We used to mock new men for watching what they ate, taking exercise, cutting down on drink – and now we know this is as much the way forward as talking to the doctor and listening to yourself when you feel bad, finding the words.