I want to talk to you about mental health, specifically in men and dads.
Heavy I know. But necessary.
It’s a hot topic these days, and mental health is much more widely recognised in the press than it used to be. But what about at ground level, day-to-day life as a man, or a dad? I’m not so sure…
When I first started thinking about this subject, my initial thoughts were that, for a man, I’m not scared or shy about talking about how I ‘feel’. “I’m like an open book” I thought to myself. “I’m the Stephen King novel of men”. But on further analysis, I realised that actually I’m miles away from that.
I’m good at it now, when I’m feeling fine, but if I have something worrying me or troubling me, my first instinct is to actively suppress it. I’ll try not to think about it or acknowledge it in any way. It’s like an annoying neighbour knocking at the door, as I hide behind the sofa with the lights off. No small talk today thank you! And slowly the knocks get quieter until eventually I can’t hear them anymore. Great huh? Problem solved.
If I get to the point where general day-to-day anxiety (which believe me I get a lot), becomes something more, which I experienced a few years back, I really struggle to comprehend why I’m feeling like I am. My emotional sensitivity isn’t adept enough to work out how I feel and why I feel like it. I need logic, I need to understand why. But with anxiety, you don’t. I just feel anxious and worried, and on this specific occasion, I didn’t want to socialise or go out and I lost my confidence, especially at work.
So to talk about that, where do I even start? I didn’t know why I felt like I did. So I certainly didn’t want to mention it to anyone. I would sound stupid. What a waste of other people’s time. No, no… I’ll ignore it until the knocking goes away.
There is very much a stereotype of man: you should be strong, show no signs of weakness, a man can’t worry. You need to be the rock, for everyone, and the provider for your family.
Of course, we all know this isn’t true. But it’s hard to shake. And to a certain extent I guess it’s built in; nature has determined our original role, and although times and society have changed, and views have changed, something in the dark depths of a man’s mind still tells him that’s what he has to be.
One of the worst things that you could probably say to someone who’s genuinely depressed or anxious is the immortal line: “MAN UP.”
“MAN UP”. If anything could deter a male from speaking his worries, this would be it. Two words that sum up how a man should be, and how a man shouldn’t be acting. To ‘man up’, is essentially to suppress those worries, don’t talk about it, to deal with it yourself. Get over it. Personify the stereotype.
It actually angers me thinking about it.
Luckily I have a good support network, and when I wasn’t acting quite myself my wife noticed. My best friend also noticed, and when I spoke to him he told me about how he had felt EXACTLY the same the year before. And out of everything, that made me feel better. It wasn’t immediate that I felt back to my normal self, in fact it took a little while, but when I started to speak to other people, and nearly everyone understood and had experienced something equal, it helped me to deal with it. It was like a relief – every time I had a conversation with someone, that tightly chained anxiety in my chest would slightly loosen.
I’d got out from behind the sofa, opened the door to my neighbour, and realised they were actually the person I had wanted to see all along.
So what I’m saying is, however stupid you might feel about opening up, or however insignificant you think it is – it’s not. People WILL understand. And most people will actively want to have that conversation. And more likely than not, it will help someone else as well.
We have a perception that it’s abnormal to feel anxious or depressed. And the stupid thing is – and I will eat my hat if this isn’t true – it’s abnormal NOT to feel like that at some stage in your life.
Postnatal depression in Dads
Official statistics recognise that 10% of dads suffer from postnatal depression, but a study by the National Childbirth Trust in June 2015 found 1 in 3 dads (38%) are worried about their own health, and 3 in 4 dads (73%) are worried about the health of their partner.dadsmatteruk.org
More recently, after I delivered my second daughter in the back seat of my car (dadwhodelivers.co.uk/specialdelivery), after the few days of adrenaline calmed down, I found myself once again feeling flat. I lost my motivation and just felt… well I don’t know, I can’t really put how I was feeling into words (but you probably know already).
We all know that having a baby hurts and whilst for most new mums the pain is soon forgotten for some women it can leave deep psychological scars; that are less related to postnatal depression, but more akin to the anxiety disorder PTSD. For mums PTSD is often triggered by complex or difficult child birth especially when there is a trauma or crises.
At the time of the crisis or trauma men are often ignored as the priority is to provide the help needed for the mother and child. Dads take a back seat doing as instructed without any real understanding other than the person they love and their child are at grave risk. It is not uncommon for Dads to feel anxious and helpless about seeing their loved one going through the ordeal of a traumatic birth. As men tend to hide their feelings then this can be repressed for a long time before emerging much later as PTSD.dadsmatteruk.org
It wasn’t until someone put it to me that I might have PTSD that I started to talk about the experience. In fact my first blog was that exact story. To get it off my chest. I’m not saying I definitely did have PTSD – I think the birthing experience certainly didn’t help me – but having a baby even without that is a massive ordeal, for all the family. You have an initial high, followed by an inevitable low. It’s all glory and celebrations when you have a child, but there is another side to it that maybe we don’t talk about enough. No one says, “oh it’s great but be prepared to be depressed”. I guess we don’t want to associate such a glorious occasion with such stigma. But I wish someone had told me, so I knew it was normal.
In the UK, men are three times as likely to die by suicide than women. In the Republic of Ireland, the rate is four times higher among men than women.(Samaritans.org)
When I read the statistic about suicide I was shocked. There’s no way it should get to that. I don’t have the magic cure, but come on guys, TALK TO EACH OTHER. Tell someone how you feel. Tell me if you need to. It’s the first, and most important step to recovery.
In my eyes a real man will talk to you about his feelings, he will take responsibility for his own mental health, and by opening up he will help himself and others.
A real man will cry.
Let’s change what “MAN UP” means. Let’s talk.
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