Taidgh Strogen discusses the barriers men face when struggling with mental health.
Scotland faces some unique challenges when it comes to social issues like alcoholism and the mental health concerns to which they are inextricably linked. Phenomena such as deindustrialisation and the fragmentation of communities caused by questionable urban planning in the 20th century have led to alarming health disparities, which are seen at their worst in the West of Scotland, as part of what many sociologists refer to as the “Glasgow effect”. In a country where all citizens have been advised to take Vitamin D supplements due to the lack of sunlight, it’s not hard to imagine that there would be a propensity for issues like depression. But have mental health conditions improved or worsened in recent times?
It appears that the issue of mental health, and related problems such as homelessness, is as alarming as it ever has been in the UK. Within the context of austerity, civil society and organisations have increasingly been forced to fill the gaps left by the government when it comes to healthcare. In Glasgow, this takes the form of NHS referrals to groups such as the Glasgow Association for Mental Health, or the constant stream of calls to the 24-hour phone service provided by the Samaritans.
When talking to Greg, a volunteer with 18 years of experience on the Samaritans phone line, it was clear that many of the causes behind the calls they receive are universal. For many living in rural areas across Europe, their physical isolation can be a catalyst for underlying mental health issues. During periods such as Christmas and New Year, the enormous amount of loneliness that people in positions of neglect experience becomes much harder to ignore, reflected by the surge of calls. In addition to some of these simpler, universal factors, the direct effect of decisions in relation to government funding is a recurring theme.
Greg remarks that “the big thing disturbing people is the benefit cuts, it’s been driving people to quite desperate situations.” He seems frustrated when he adds: “The people who should benefit are sitting waiting.” Seeking counselling for mental health has long been a frustrating experience, complicated by waiting lists and a web of bureaucracy that can be difficult to navigate. While a devolved Scotland under the SNP has at times been shielded from the worst excesses of post-2008 neoliberal economic policy, it seems reasonable to believe that the current climate of austerity and the underfunding of the NHS only worsens the situation for many seeking help.
Despite the seemingly bleak situation when it comes to options for support, some recent figures have been very promising. Data from the Office for National Statistics shows that in 2017, the suicide rate among men was at its lowest rate in more than 30 years. When the current political and economic climate in the UK would not appear to be conducive to positive change, what is the cause of this progress? To answer this question, it is key to consider the fact that the disproportional male suicide rate is a consistent trend, regardless of country of origin and levels of development. According to the World Health Organization, the suicide rate for men in 2016, across all regions of the world, was 13.5 (per 10,000 population). The corresponding statistic for women was only 7.7.
If we want to take into account the universal nature of this disparity, and look beyond the specific material factors that lead to suicide on a regional level, it is crucial to examine the role that stigma and the societal perception of mental health issues plays. Often mental health issues are left to stew due to fear of judgement, or because no viable options are presented for immediate care. In this way, symptoms remain untreated until the point of no return. Many people who suffer from addiction talk about the necessity of hitting “rock-bottom”, in order to truly understand their predicament and commit themselves to serious change. Arguably, the opposite is true when it comes to mental illness. Anybody who has been sectioned, or knows somebody who has, can attest to the traumatic and life-changing nature of the experience. In the long run, it can lead to positive results for many, and there needs to be some system in place to deal with extreme cases where people have significantly harmed themselves or others. Nevertheless, the fact that so many people are left with no way of resolving their issues until breaking point, and the inevitable trauma that follows, says a lot about both the way we speak about mental illness and the safeguards in place for sufferers. Whether the root is a fear of familial or social ostracization, or the failure to belong to institutions such as universities, which provide a clearer framework within which to seek help, we can see how these problems have escalated. This leads to tragically avoidable results. When we think back to the times of Victorian asylums and treatments such as electro-shock therapy, we’ve clearly come a long way towards removing the stigma associated with mental health, and allowing people to keep their dignity during times of suffering. But until we are able to tackle emerging mental health problems from the beginning, in the same calm and casual way that we seek antibiotics for a persistent flu or an inconvenient back pain, there is still a lot of work to be done.
When considering the factors that affect male suicide rates, traditional attitudes towards gender are another key aspect. Within the context of the type of toxic masculinity that has constantly defined men’s role in society, the need to play the role of the stoic, unemotional provider within a traditional, patriarchal family structure creates a dilemma. To be open about your emotions, or even about your inability to cope without the help of others, somehow lessens your “manhood”. It is not limited to people whom we would typically label as showing signs of a particular type of “machismo”. This mindset is much more ingrained and pervasive. What to many is the braveness of being open and exposed, is a display of weakness to others. Whilst going to therapy for depression as a teenager, I still remember the furtive glance of a classmate one day, after crossing paths in the waiting room. Without words, the mutual feeling was clear: “This is not something we need to acknowledge or talk about.”
Despite the encouraging lowered male suicide rates, the idea that the driving force behind this improvement is not concrete conditions, but rather our social dynamic towards gender, raises dilemmas about how to move forward. Can lasting change really be stimulated and enforced from the top down? With the implementation of the Sugar Tax and alcohol pricing laws in Scotland, the government has shown it is willing to use regulation to tackle social issues such as binge drinking and obesity. Nevertheless, it is difficult to see how a direct and pragmatic approach can be taken to more nuanced issues like social stigma and gender roles. Through campaigns such as the TheLADbible’s “UOKM8?” and the Campaign Against Living Miserably, significant improvements can be made in raising awareness. The only thing that is fully clear is the need for a continued discussion, so that the issue remains present in public discourse. Only in this way can we erode the stigma and pressure people to find new solutions, both on an interpersonal level and from positions of power.