June 11, 2012

‘Boys don’t cry.’ It’s that old stereotype that we blokes never asked to be forced upon us, but we feel that we must conform to. Is it any wonder that men are more likely than women to commit suicide?

The first reaction that many men have when experiencing a mental health problem is one of denial. I have a tendency to stick my head in the sand when suffering from depression or anxiety. By pretending that it isn’t happening, I refuse to accept that I may be ‘weak’ and thus less of a man. But does doing this actually make me more of a man? Or does it make me an ostrich?

The problem that we men face is often one of pride. We are ruthless creatures and want to be the top dog. Whether that is at work, in sport, or chasing a zebra with a spear in order to feed our family, we have to be strong. Where does that leave time for such minor things like emotions, which may cause others to perceive us as weak?

men do have emotions

Yet, men do have emotions. We are not perfect warriors, hunters or salespeople. As much as we hate to admit it, we are not perfect at anything! But does that make us weak?

When the dark clouds come over my horizon, I often find it useful to listen to music. The musicians that we enjoy listening to are often what we might consider ‘perfect’ men. Talented, rich, good-looking, confident, and successful (especially with the ladies!). But many of these men have similar weaknesses to us. One of my favourite songs is Strong by Robbie Williams. In it, he alludes to his battles with depression. The song taught me a lot about myself. No matter what persona I put on, and how many barriers I put up to the world, it doesn’t change the fact that there is a problem. And it’s OK to admit this.

I think the manliest thing to do is to fight it

So what do we do once we have admitted to ourselves that we have a mental health problem? Well, I think the manliest thing to do is to fight it! For me, this involved taking antidepressants. Taking the tablets, though, was a very hard thing to do. Was it me fighting this disease, or some chemical a shrink had given me? Again, I took comfort from the music of Robbie Williams. But it wasn’t enough. I needed back-up.

When Steven Gerrard leads the Three Lions onto the pitch, is he alone? No. He has ten men with him, Roy Hodgson in the dugout, and the English nation behind him. (We may not have high hopes, but we still dream!)

To overcome my bipolar disorder, I needed support from my friends

To overcome my bipolar disorder, I needed support from my friends. They can listen, motivate, or even just offer company. Thankfully, in my experience, the overwhelming majority of my friends were incredibly supportive. I found that being almost blasé about my bipolar disorder took away a large amount of the fear that is often at the root of stigma. They could see that I was the same person that I was before, just with an extra ‘label’. In fact, it made me less weird, as it answered many questions.

Initially just close friends knew about my diagnosis, but I was aware that people in my wider circles would eventually find out. I figured that by acting as if I had something to hide – something to be ashamed of – I would risk being stigmatised. So, since I knew that I had nothing to be ashamed of, I was very open about my bipolar. It is immensely liberating not to have to lie or hide the truth. And I think people respect that openness.

there are people who find mental health issues very uncomfortable

Of course, there are people who find mental health issues very uncomfortable; I find humour sometimes works with such people. By claiming words such as ‘mad’, ‘insane’, and ‘off-his-rocker’ for myself, I leave little for prejudiced people. Also, it breaks the ice for people who are simply scared of the unknown or unsure of what to say.

Stephen Fry’s brilliant documentary about bipolar was broadcast during my first, and most public, episode. Mental health was topical. This was a very lucky coincidence. It helped people understand me, and created conversations. Now, it is Time to Change – an excellent opportunity to get talking about mental illness.

It is a sign of strength

It is a sign of strength, not weakness, to acknowledge our limitations. We only live once, so let’s make the most of what we’ve got, and celebrate our differences.

And remember: Boys don’t cry. Men do.

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