remember, remember, the thirty days of Movember

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Can men talk about their feelings?

Definitely. Some of them. Sometimes. Perhaps. Maybe you’re reading this and thinking “yep, most of the ones I know.” However, dependent upon geography and generation, it might not ring quite as true. And I guess that highlights the crux of the issue. Gender, status, mental wellbeing, physical health – none of those fit into neat, simple boxes and generalising, whilst largely unhelpful, appears seemingly unavoidable.

The scene set for this November’s ‘Movember’ is one of confusing discrepancies. Despite declining over recent decades, early indications are that 2020 will see an overall rise in the UK suicide rate. Of this, men will make up roughly 75% of all suicides and accounts for over 5,000 male lives being ended prematurely and abruptly. Although a gross simplification, in the minds of many, it is assumed that the path to suicide is often preceded by a cocktail of severe depression, long periods receiving treatment, of relapses and failed interventions. But the facts discredit this. Studies highlight that the fairer sex are more than twice as likely to suffer from depression and mental illness as men. Therefore, it appears that women are, on one hand far more likely to suffer mental health problems, yet far less likely to take their own lives.

The reality is many more questions than answers remain. Is this discrepancy down to some men being unable or unwilling to recognise and process how they feel? Is it that they are embarrassed to reach out and admit perceived weakness? Perhaps the accepted theory that men’s inherent capacity for violence means their suicide attempts have a higher rate of success, has some credence? Personally, I doubt this. Additionally, is it any coincidence that whilst men are less likely than women to be diagnosed with depression, they are twice as likely to suffer from substance abuse disorder? Does that ever-present crutch of society represent therapy for the silent? Does the demon-drink shield the reality of the action? Sadly, it is almost certainly a combination of all the above factors in tandem with countless others.

However, there’s one idea that’s wormed its way into my brain that deserves some contemplation. It originates from what Eckhart Tolle terms the female ‘collective pain body’. Again, I know I am in danger of generalising here, as well as skirting around some difficult conversations about how and if should we define gender, but stick with me. As I understand it, Tolle proposes that through generationally inherited and communal suffering, ranging from menstruation and pregnancy to existing within patriarchal (ie male) structures and suppression, women have a greater aptitude for an open, inclusive and pro-active sharing of the emotional load. The mutual hardships and experiences creating a bond of common ground and solidarity – even if none of those topics are explicitly referenced. It is as if the ‘sisterhood’ genuinely exists with genetically contrived bonds of solidarity and support.

The prevailing narrative seems to view the male gender as promoters of pain. In the eyes of some, the idea of a ‘male pain body’ is grossly self-indulgent and incongruous. But maybe that’s the thing Movember is trying to provide? A movement that promotes the male collective, the shared experience, represented and celebrated through an infinite variety and calibre of facial hair. A community and cause that can highlight the male condition without relying on class identity, race, religion, size, strength, sports affiliations or fatherhood – all traditional (or maybe stereotypical) facets of the male experience that can never be truly inclusive. Mind, even this does tend to descend into an unintentional testosterone-based competition of who is the most hirsute of homo-sapiens!  

The male legacy is undoubtedly controversial. Both the men of yesterday and today have raped and pillaged, plundered and murdered, suppressed and manipulated the world around them. Yet there have always been good men; wise men, sensitive men and kind men. Men who now, more than ever, need to feel part of something bigger, something that helps them find a path through the fog and confusion of our rapidly changing society and redefine what it means to be a man in the 21st century.