It’s a phrase you probably heard last weekend. Painful tackle? Don’t want to down it? Film scene got you emotional? The answer is simple. Just two words to get you back on your feet, suck it up and continue without a word: “man up.”
A seemingly harmless phrase, yet for some, the expression’s etymology built upon the caveman-like conception of men as strong, self-sufficient and stoically silent on emotional issues adds a weight to these words that is too heavy to bear. This is exactly the conclusion that Professor Green reached in his recent documentary Suicide and Me, in which the rapper investigated the possible causes of his father’s sudden suicide, and a perception that translated into 4,623 male suicides in 2014 – 76 per cent of the total that year. Suicide is, in fact, the greatest single killer of males under 45.
304 students responded to the survey.
With this knowledge, it’s all the more concerning that 45.9 per cent of males at the University of Exeter see their gender as a barrier in seeking mental health help compared to just 6.2 per cent of females. As Mind Your Head society launches their Men’s Mental Health Month this November, Exeposé asks: why is this and what can we do to shatter the stigma here on campus? Silence is insidious; it’s time to start the conversation.
If you have experienced mental health problems whilst at university, you are not alone. Our survey of 304 students revealed that 34.5 per cent suffer from a mental health issue. Of these, a quarter had developed their condition since beginning their degree. While academic pressure and “fear of failure” were commonly cited as reasons, even more frequent were references to feelings of “not fitting in with university social groups”, triggered by the emphasis on high-calibre sport and alcohol-fuelled socials.
Niall*, a second-year student whose pre-existing depression was aggravated by university life, told Exeposé: “The misconception that these years are the ‘best of your life’ places unnecessary pressure on young people to go out drinking and partying. The fact most socials organised are ‘go to clubs and get pissed’ alienates a large portion of the student body, who would much rather a quiet meal or a day trip somewhere.”
This attitude, in part, he attributes to the prevalence of ‘lad culture’. “The societal pressure to be a ‘lad’ having loads of sex and getting wasted can be very harmful to men, especially when they decline, as they’re seen as ‘no fun’. The amount of times I have specified that I don’t want to drink and have been met with laughter or peer pressure is baffling.”
34.5 per cent of all students suffer from a mental health condition.
For Josh*, the upheaval of moving to university and being without his “support system” was the trigger of severe social anxiety and paranoia. “I’m very close with my mother and usually talk with her about my problems. Given that she was so far away, I was unable to do that, so I fell back on the masculine idea that I had to take care of myself.”
Although the Wellbeing Centre was recommended to him within his first year, it took him a year and a half before seeking help due to a fear of being considered vulnerable – something identified by over one third of the student population as an obstacle to seeking help – and “social stigma” concerns from both peers and family. “My dad wasn’t particularly happy with me having counselling. The idea is that it’s not ‘manly’ to talk about your problems.”
Regrettably, such a situation has been replicated countless times nationwide, with six out of ten UK students having witnessed peers with mental health conditions be stigmatised, according to figures released to Exeposé by the Priory Group, the leading provider of behavioural care in the UK.
Part of this stigma stems from the common tendency to associate mood disorders with extreme and clichéd representations of mental illness, which can also prove a barrier when seeking help. Shockingly, nearly 70 per cent of Exeter students felt that they would be dissuaded from doing so for fear that their wellbeing concerns are not ‘bad enough’ to warrant professional help.
27,000 signatures on petition to introduce mental health in the National Curriculum.
The perception that mental health operates on a sliding severity scale is entirely fictitious, yet we so routinely fail to recognise that panic attacks, insomnia or academic stress aren’t just part and parcel of university life, but valid mental health concerns. “This is particularly relevant to current research on male suicide, which suggests that men often find it difficult to recognise early symptoms of emotional distress, and commonly wait until crisis-point before seeking help,” observed Dr Alison Haggett, Research Fellow and specialist in the history mental health and masculinity.
A lack of education on the matter is undeniably part of the reason we often fail to understand mental health, resulting in the perpetuation of worrying misconceptions.
As Josh admits: “When I first went to counselling, I didn’t realise that anxiety was actually part mental health – I thought it was just an emotion”. Kane*, meanwhile, took three months before visiting the Health Centre, believing that his anxiety, depression and insomnia were simply “exam stress”.
No wonder, then, that Priory Group figures showed that 90.3 per cent of students in the South West believe that schools, colleges and universities do not do enough to educate and make students aware. Although PSHE lessons are supposed to cover aspects of wellbeing, there is, alarmingly, no compulsory focus on mental health in the national curriculum. A government petition was recently launched to remedy this apparent and grave flaw, and has since collected over 27,000 signatures at the time of writing – a potential game changer in the national mental health discussion if it can indeed gain the 100,000 signatures necessary for debate within Parliament.
Educational progress could also be made in combating the myth that mental health problems tend to be gender specific, and predominantly female. Interestingly, 127 students felt that there were mental health struggles specific to their gender, with nearly one third citing eating disorders as a key issue and many suggesting that it is an exclusively female problem, even though one quarter of eating disorder sufferers in the UK are male – a fact of which charity Men Get Eating Disorders Too aims to make the public aware.
4,623 SUICIDES IN 2014 WERE MALE, 76 per cent OF SUICIDES THAT YEAR.
Such findings highlight the gaps in our collective knowledge and the destructive stereotypes still to be be shattered. The Wellbeing Services team therefore offer an adapted approach to male sufferers of both complex and common mental health difficulties, and support an increasing number of men who wish to explore their sexual orientation or gender identity, but may have previously been hindered by notions of ‘masculinity’.
According to Head of Wellbeing Services Mark Sawyer, this emotional drawback “may arise from internalised and unhelpful gender expectations that somehow men ‘should’ feel in control of their emotions, or mustn’t acknowledge the strength of their emotional distress…We therefore recognise how crucially important it is to create a non-judgemental and inclusive environment where, together with our service users, we can embrace and celebrate a broad range of ‘masculinities’”.
Indeed, this eagerness to challenge stereotypical notions of ‘manliness’ is becoming a national priority. And with good reason too, as such debate, discussion and action helps to combat detrimental societal expectations for all genders, whilst fighting for a world in which it is no longer the case that women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with a common mental disorder, while male suicide rates are consistently higher, year after year.
The progress is already visible. Nationwide, Lynx and Topman have lent their voices to the male suicide prevention campaign, whilst here on campus, Mind Your Head society saw more male than female speakers for the first time ever at one of their recent ‘Share Your Story’ events. For those not ready to raise their voices, however, other campus initiatives including Voice, the Residence Life team and the Students’ Guild Advice Unit allow students the opportunity to seek help in a more relaxed setting, before considering using the Wellbeing Centre, whose waiting list may prove an issue for struggling students.
Above all, whether male or female, students are encouraged to practice ‘self care’. For Kane, the answer was engaging with musical societies and regularly exercising. “I’ve been going to the gym a lot. It’s hard to make myself go, particularly if I’m having a bad day, but the endorphin buzz I get out of it and having something like my health and body entirely under my control with a goal to reach has been really good.”
90.3 per cent of students in the South West think that more needs to be done on educating people about mental health.
Niall, on the other hand, praises the therapeutic nature of meditation. “When I came to university, I found the Exeter Meditation Society and it changed my life. Everyone there had gone through issues like me, and there was absolutely no judgement from anyone. I could be myself, and when you meditate you focus only on the breath. Suddenly, I realised that fighting depression wasn’t the best way to go about things. Instead, I accepted and loved my depression, I forgave it for the pain it caused me. Depression never goes away, but we can learn to live with it, if we take steps to heal.”
As Josh concluded, the most important thing to realise is that mental health is not something temporary, simply solved by a quick fix. This, or any apprehensions surrounding emotional ‘weakness’ should not dissuade people from speaking out, however. “I don’t think seeking help was a weakness for me. I think it would have been a weakness if I had continued my self destructive behaviour. Of course we’re all works in progress, but one percent on improvement is still a great improvement.” Apt words, perhaps, to describe the nationwide issue too.
Speech is empowering, not emasculating, and with every word, every gender takes a step forward. The conversation has started, and it’s up to us to continue it.
*Names have been changed to protect identities.
Fiona Potigny and Eamonn Crowe.