Are you a bloke under the age of 45? If so, do you know the greatest threat to your life? No, it’s not a disease, or an accident, or an assault.
The biggest cause of death for men under 45 is suicide. You are more likely to die at your own hand than in any other way. Not a heart attack, not cancer, not murder, not an industrial accident involving pig iron or the West Yorkshire coalfield. No.
It is a shocking statistic. But why is it happening?
It’s a complex issue with many different layers, but I think we can boil it down broadly to the culture of maleness: of being male. Last week was mental health awareness week and football is the perfect prism because it distills some of the most difficult aspects.
The reactionary male culture of football is so extreme, even in 2018, that no-one who is gay feels able to freely express their sexuality, at a time when elsewhere it has never been more accepted. Add in the banter, the aggression and the alpha male culture and this suggests the game is one of the last repositories of harcdcore emotionally repressed manliness. And like it or not, that is a driver for many of the psychological problems we suffer.
If you get a chance, do listen to this discussion between David Preece and Tony Coton as it touches on so many of the important issues, primarily the inability so many of us have to be able to talk when there is darkness in our souls about how lost and adrift we sometimes can feel.
And I’d also recommend you listen to Danny Kelly’s My Sporting Life on talkSPORT this week with Kieron Dyer which addresses how being abused as a boy can close you down and make you hard-faced as a defence mechanism. It also explains just why being a footballer can lead you into some dark places, and also how to get out of them.
Sometimes it can be a bit tricky being a bloke in 2018. Since the first time we opened our tiny little eyes we have been placed into one half of that most pernicious of things: the pink and blue culture. How on earth can a colour be assigned to a gender and why would anyone even bother? What exactly is to be gained, other than to narrow a child’s development from the earliest hours of life? And yet many seem to think it is somehow part of the natural order of things. But it draws a line for you as a boy (and as a girl too, of course). The pressure is already on to live up to the blue and to not be the pink. And that’s where the trouble can start because life is a rainbow, not just blue.
We all know how we’re supposed to be. Unemotional, confident, assertive, mentally and physically strong, well-endowed, dependable, the breadwinner. If you’re not any of these things, you’re not a real man.
We also know the most common male-to-male culture. Sometimes violent, often aggressive, unaffectionate, piss-taking, unsympathetic, very non-touchy and very non-feely.
This builds and builds and builds all through your development years, into adulthood and becomes so embedded that it is almost impossible to get out from under, at least without some professional help.
So when depression hits you, and it hits at least 25% of us at some point, you have no vocabulary to express it. After all, you’ve been brought up not to talk about your feelings. You’ve been told that to do so is weak, wet and wussy. We’ve been told we’re not Real Men to feel like this. So you swallow it down one way or another. You try to drink or drug it off your mind, or indulge in any other manner of other destructive behaviour to try and kill it. But it doesn’t work.
Now in 2018 we are in the maelstrom of a gender revolution and many of the old ways of being male are no longer acceptable to many. While some of us feel very liberated by this cultural shift, others are left adrift without any obvious home. Everything they’ve been brought up to believe is being either criticised, frowned upon, superseded, vilified or just seen as very old-fashioned.
Under these circumstances, some get reactionary and angry, others just don’t know what is expected of them anymore. When you stir this into the confused maleness mix, if you begin to sink into depression, it’s not surprising that so many of us fail to cope. And I feel this in part explains why we kill ourselves in such extraordinary numbers.
Until we reform how we understand our masculinity, will it get get any better?
Being weak isn’t a bad thing. It is part of being human, not a failure of your gender or sexuality. You are no less of a man for not being able to cope sometimes, for crying at the nameless existential pain in your soul. It’s all okay to admit to these things, they happen to many of us, it happened to me, and there is a way through things, there are better days ahead. We just need to learn to ask for help.
When depressed, men get especially used to hiding it from people, from bosses, colleagues, friends and family. The man with depression can become very adept at creating a veneer to hide behind and that veneer can become such a hard shell that no-one has a clue who really dwells behind. But then you go home, remove the veneer and are left to confront the unhappy empty vessel that is the true reality. The feeling that you’re living a lie isn’t a happy one.
To bring it back to football again, that would certainly appear to be what was the situation with Gary Speed. After his suicide, friend Alan Shearer said in the Telegraph.
“I was laughing and joking with him on Saturday (in a BBC TV studio), as we always do. There was no sign. The last thing I said was, ‘See you next weekend’. We were supposed to be going out, to a charity dinner we were attending together. I just keep coming up with the same question: why? Why didn’t he call me, why didn’t he say anything on Saturday, if something was bothering him?”
It is understandable bewilderment, but sometimes you just can’t say anything. It’s too complex, too deep, too layered, too personal, too f*cking pink and blue. Be a man. Be a brave little soldier. Be a good boy.
But we know we can’t.
So you don’t want to trouble them. They’re your friend, you don’t want to curse them with your evil. You can’t tell them because it tears down everything your friend thinks you are. And then, on top of that, you just want to stop the torment in your head.
And that’s when it happens.
But it doesn’t have to. It really doesn’t. Being a nicer, more thoughtful, more gentle and open man makes life better for yourself and for everyone around you. Life is so much better for shedding the inhibited, oppressive, emotionally repressed retrograde macho culture we’re inculcated into; by shedding the pink and blue, if you like.
Our lesson here is don’t be like football. Don’t bottle it up and tough it out. Don’t try and be A Man.
Being A Man is killing us.
Don’t be afraid to reach out. There is help and understanding available from these wonderful organisations.