Life & Culture

Why Mental Health Awareness Isn’t Enough

Awareness of mental illness is only one step – now we need to push for more, writes Jack Urwin

Men, we are now being told on a near-constant basis, need to learn to open up, emote, and discuss their feelings. Countless writers on the subject, myself included, have drawn a link between male emotional repression and the disturbing gender disparity in suicide rates, with men in a number of countries being three or four times more likely than women to take their own lives. The UK is no exception to this: suicide continues to be the number one cause of death for British men under the age of 45.

That a number of issues stem from men’s inability to talk about their feelings and mental health is something most reasonable people accept as fact now, and that’s wonderful. But it doesn’t go far enough anymore.

While I stand by my earlier assertions that our inability to communicate has a major impact on our mental health and wellbeing, I must also admit that this is something of an oversimplification. In the three years since I first started writing on this subject, I do believe a lot has changed in the way of awareness surrounding male mental health, and while it’s difficult to quantify, anecdotally it does feel like more people are having conversations about mental illness, and that more men are beginning to feel comfortable opening up about their own struggles. ‘Awareness’ is generally what events such as World Mental Health Day are about, and who could fault anyone for trying to raise awareness of such an important issue?

“What good is awareness if it can’t be converted into something tangible and useful?”

But the time comes that we must also ask ourselves: what good is awareness if it can’t be converted into something tangible and useful? Thousands of men have already taken that vital first step of self-examination, have accepted they must seek help for their mental illnesses, made a valiant effort to begin that long road to recovery.

And then, we’ve failed them.

Faced with a health service that’s been rinsed dry, that’s endured cut after cut and is ostensibly falling apart after the best part of a decade of austerity measures at the hands of the Conservatives, which it’s being increasingly accepted were utterly pointless and of no long-term benefit to the economy whatsoever, roughly 10% of those who seek help are now forced to hold out for over a year for a referral to therapy, a timeline that’s seeing thousands plunged into further ill health, sometimes attempting suicide while still waiting.

Today, we will likely see a handful of those who engineered the demise of our National Health Service marking World Mental Health Day. Maybe they will stand and applaud the work of mental health campaigners and speak about the importance of a better understanding of mental illness, offer some vague sentiments to the effect of ‘it’s important to talk’ and then go back to ripping out the last remaining pieces of the infrastructure that supports our country’s mentally ill. They will ignore the fact that under their administration, suicide rates have increased and a quarter of people with severe mental illnesses are not receiving adequate treatment.

“It is no longer enough to encourage men to talk about their feelings if there’s no one there to listen”

Barely a week ago, in the wake of the Las Vegas shootings, politicians on the other side of the Atlantic clamoured to blame the gunman’s actions on mental illness. As has happened with every one of America’s recent, completely preventable tragedies involving mass murder by someone wielding firearms, the American people’s spineless representatives have told them what is needed to protect their country is not gun control, but better systems in place to help care for the mentally ill. Then, just like their conservative counterparts an ocean away, they have returned to gutting what few provisions are in place to aid those suffering from poor mental health. Globally, those in charge are learning to say the right things but rarely acting upon their promises.

Awareness is a great step in the right direction, but it is only a step. And while I hope everyone will continue the conversation about mental health and keep encouraging our loved ones – especially the men in our lives – to talk about their feelings, I urge you to consider the next step in this journey. We need to hold those in power to account.

Don’t let the Conservatives get away with patting themselves on the back for saying we need to tackle the stigma of depression, when they have blood on their hands. Don’t let them fool you into believing they care about the mentally ill, when their policies have done nothing but harm to those most in need. Aside from their monstrous attack on our NHS, the Tories have ushered in a new era of neoliberalism defined by the insecurity and instability of a gig economy, leaving an entire generation stuck with precarious, low-paid employment – and while money may not buy you happiness, struggling to support yourself on an irregular income certainly leaves you more susceptible to depressive and anxious thoughts. I speak from experience on this.

Whoever you are, wherever in the world you are, hold your elected representatives accountable this Mental Health Day. It is no longer enough to encourage men to talk about their feelings if there’s no one there to listen. And until there is, we will continue to die at our own hands in shocking numbers.

Jack Urwin is author of Man Up: Surviving Modern Masculinity.