The mask of masculinity

August 15, 2016

On Sunday night I sat down in front of the TV and begun the usual trawl through Netflix, looking for something to catch my eye. After several minutes I stumbled upon a new documentary by Jennifer Siebel Newsom intriguingly titled ‘The Mask You Live In’. When I clicked play I had no more expectations than it being an easy way to spend an evening, but 90 minutes later I found I had connected with the documentary far, far more than I was ready for.

What does it mean to be a man? American society might be pushing a masculinity on our boys that destroys them.

When I began blogging about and openly discussing my mental health issues little under two years ago I didn’t really appreciate how big a deal it may be. It came at a time when I was looking to run a number of marathons for Mind, so it made sense that I would write about my experiences with depression to provide a personal story as to why I was travelling up and down the country to run 26.2 miles each month. It shortly became something that I felt was beneficial to my mental well-being, it provided me with an outlet and the more I wrote the more I felt like it had become my duty to raise awareness of the issues I was going through in case it connected with anyone reading it.

It just never really struck me as weird, that I, a male in my mid-20s was openly talking about my struggles with depression until people started to point it out. The idea of a man not just suffering from depression, but being comfortable with talking about it publicly seems to be a rare one, something that sometimes people don’t always know how to deal with.

The phrase “man up” or “be a man” is something that I have heard uttered my way on more than one occasion, it carries the same insulting ignorance that suggesting people can simply ‘snap out’ of depression does, but personally I feel is also much more offensive. There is a disturbing unspoken (or often too widely spoken) belief of what a man should be, whether it’s being a ‘lad’, a part-time misogynist, being a strong leader, tough, physically dominant, promiscuous or angry, it’s never about being honest with their emotions or being caring. The idea that someone isn’t a man because they don’t adhere to those archaic stereotypes is dangerous.

Throughout most of my adolescence and into my adulthood I’ve always been drawn to making stronger friendships with females, rather than males. Whilst I could easily get on with them, the simple fact that I stopped drinking when I was 17 and didn’t have a girlfriend until I was 20 meant that I simply didn’t fit into the lad culture. Whether this was borne out of my social anxiety or if it helped to develop it I’m not sure, but the two are definitely linked in some way.

I spent most of my teenage (and adult) years angry, not at anything in particular, just whatever happened to get my attention for that moment. I’ve since realised that this anger was often just my depression manifesting itself in the only way it knew how to at the time. I’ve always known that I was highly tuned in to my emotions, when your eyes tear up the first time you see Nemo’s mum die you know you can’t pretend you’re not. Even if there’s nothing ‘manly’ about crying at a cartoon.

Whilst watching that documentary I caught myself on more than a handful of occasions tearing up, unwillingly connecting with the sadness and despair on screen. If you have 90 minutes, an open mind and a Netflix account I’d recommend giving this a watch.

The documentary focuses on the issues very much from an American viewpoint, but the same issues are prevalent the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. After watching it I found myself doing some research and learnt that in 2014 there were 6,581 suicides in the UK and ROI with a staggering 76% of those being male, meaning that men are three times more likely to commit suicide than women. This statistic would already be concerning before taking into consideration that this is despite women being twice as likely to suffer from depression than men.

It cannot be ignored that the deeply ingrained belief that ‘real men’ don’t cry, and that it isn’t manly to ask for help and to talk about your problems is killing hundreds of men each year. For those fortunate enough to steer clear of the suicide route it is still having long lasting damaging effects to their health, whether it’s chronic depression, alcoholism or leading them down even darker paths.

There is nothing manly about pretending you’re something you’re not, about hiding your true emotions from others and from not asking for help when you really need it.

It will be difficult and feel really uncomfortable at times, but if you need help please, please find someone to talk to. 

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