Campaigning can raise the profile of male and female mental health issuesSinn Féin

Cast your mind back to the fresher’s fair. It was mad and maddening; the logistical nightmare of engaging thousands of students who don’t want to talk to you. My stand had its fair share of difficulties and I still feel slightly guilty about my opening line, ‘do you want to look after your mental health?’.

Slightly provocative, but it worked. Most people were taken aback by the bluntness, responded with an unsure yes, and then came to find out more about us. However as the day wore on I began to notice a definite trend: men were far less likely to stop.

It’s hard to remember that coming from school into the very different environment of university is a momentous shift. Talking to teachers and thinking back to my own school days, the sheer lack of understanding and awareness of mental health issues at this age is staggering. For this reason, the reaction of the men at the fresher’s fair is unsurprising.

Every time I’ve been at event which has a slightly mental health spin, the proportion of men attending compared to other genders has been tiny. We grow up in the same environment, but the understanding of Cambridge’s male population of mental health issues is shocking. It’s time we asked why.

From a young age, we’re bombarded with the damaging message that men don’t have mental health issues. Dads, a role model for a huge number of sons, are often portrayed as clueless and emotionally illiterate in pop culture. It’s often played for an innocuous cheap laugh. Laughs that build up over a lifetime reinforcing the same message, that it’s not a man’s role to connect with his emotions.

Even when shows attempt to tackle this issue, it’s massively mishandled. Not only are male characters shown as super macho, their issues are resolved by sheer force of will. Suits has Harvey Spector’s single episode arc from constant panic attacks to flushing his medication down the toilet, while ignoring and repressing his problems. Strength and sheer force of will gets him through. While I agree that resilience is important and parts of the episode do reflect the struggle of dealing with mental health issues, it’s rushed and relies on hyper masculine tropes. The message that sucking it up is enough to get you through is verging on irresponsible.

The ‘boys don’t cry’ mantra develops from a young age, often in the rough and tumble of the playground. My own tears were seen as a sign of physical weakness, a very unmanly attribute, in a world where being manly seems to be the only way to command respect and sexual appeal.

When trying to engage with men, fear mixed with anger is a common response. Questioning their ability to handle their mental health is paramount to challenging their worth as a man. This is dangerous as suicide rates among men is three times higher than the average.

"Checking your mental headspace, whether you are in need of help, and making sure you don't repress and ignore such issues is important"

Change is coming and more campaigns are targeting men than ever before.

The first major issue is how to get them to pay attention. Shock tactics sometimes work but often drive people away, especially when suggesting they are in need of help. More nuanced campaigns are attempting to use masculinity to get men to start opening up. I respect the ‘Is your mate off his game’ which attempts to introduce the idea of talking about problems in sports teams. By drawing on the male ideals such as strength and friendship, there is hope to get through to this section of society.

In my experience though, these can skate over a deeper reason behind lack of engagement: sexism. Through welfare drop-in sessions and wider discussions as part of Student Minds, I’ve seen many men with the same problem. They want to talk, but feel their gender prevents them. More feminine traits, such as talking about emotions, admitting weakness or being prepared to seek help, are ascribed negative connotations. This is unhelpful as these are some of the best things to practise in order to look after your mental health. Checking your mental headspace, whether you are in need of help, and making sure you don't repress and ignore such issues is important. The patriarchy’s shunning of this behaviour is dangerous.

Some men are in touch with this emotional aspect of their self and it’s easier to explore how to build on this understanding. More traditionally masculine men, who aren’t so emotionally secure, require a different approach. Humour can be useful to get them to open up, along with dispelling the myths they might have heard. Neither attitude is better, just different.

On a larger scale, when we focus on male mental health in activism, finding the balance between the two approaches is key. Changing opinions on ‘feminine’ behaviour can help men become more mentally healthy. Getting to that point may require engaging with men on more traditional grounds and fall into wider campaigns targeting the entire population.

In most areas of life, men have had structural and cultural advantages over everyone else. When it comes to mental health however, they are in need of help. Pain is pain and unnecessary death always a tragedy. Together we can change how men view their emotions and how society shapes them

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