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Men's mental health at work: how unions can help men to open up

Author
Mark Everden Guest
Published date
06 Feb 2019
It’s a bit of a cliché - the strong and silent man, the stiff upper lip. But sometimes clichés are clichés because they contain a truth. The truth here is that men often don’t talk about their mental health, or indeed their feelings at all.

I was first diagnosed with clinical depression in my mid-teens. I was diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder a few years later. I was 18 when I first attempted suicide. I’m now 53 and my second (and hopefully last) attempt was four years ago. In the intervening years I’ve experienced good mental health and bad mental health. I’ve had periods when I’ve been really on top of my life, and times when I could barely function.

But one thing that defined most of those years was my inability to talk to another human being (who wasn’t my GP) about my mental health.

And I’m not alone in this.

Currently, the biggest killer of men between the ages of 18 and 45 in the UK is suicide. There is a national crisis of mental health, yet men are far less likely than women to seek help for their mental health issues. Only 53% of men who have depression have spoken to a friend about their illness, as opposed to 75% of women.

For as long as I can remember, people have told me to ‘man up’ when I’ve seemed low. Once you reach a certain age, the perfectly natural act of crying to release emotions becomes a problem for boys. If you cry, you’re seen as weak, effeminate or odd. So you just stuff it all back down inside, wear a mask and act like ‘one of the lads’. Both my suicide attempts happened not because I didn’t want to live anymore, but because I was so full of unexpressed emotions, I felt like I was going to explode.

Men also face self-image problems which I believe are being exacerbated by social media. The constant pressure to have the perfect body is no longer just something women experience. NHS figures show that over the last decade male hospital admissions for eating disorders have risen by 70%.

This is not to detract from women’s experiences of mental ill health; women are far more likely to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder than men, and cuts to mental health services have disproportionately affected women. However, I believe there is still an urgent discussion to be had in the trade union movement about men’s mental health.

The question is, what needs to be done?  

Firstly, there is an urgent need to de-stigmatise talking about mental health for men. The Campaign against Living Miserably (CALM) and Heads Together have done good work in this area, but I would argue that trade unions could add to this substantially by creating discussions in the workplaces we represent.

Unions can play a role in helping employers set up networks of Mental Health Champions or First Aiders. Crucially though, we can also negotiate strong and effective mental health policies that help men (and women) talk about their issues without fear of judgement.

We must also continue to campaign for a fully funded NHS and mental health services that provide the support, treatment and space to talk that is so desperately needed to tackle the mental health crisis in this country.

‘I became the change’

Four years ago, I took the decision to be open about my mental health issues.

I was terrified. Unsure if I was making the right choice. But I knew that carrying on as before would eventually kill me. So I started talking to friends, family and my employer. I wanted them to see that it’s ok for men to talk openly about how they feel. To paraphase Gandhi, I became the change I wanted to see.

This decision was the starting point of my recovery. I now have a support network that gets me through the days when I feel that I can’t cope as well, and I have an employer that genuinely helps and supports me. What I want most of all, is for everyone to feel able to be more open about their mental health.

Get talking

Today is Time to Talk Day, so it’s as good a day as any to start doing something.

Every trade union activist, rep, officer, even  members should use this day to ask :what is my union doing to help men and women talk about and get support on mental health? And what can I do to help?

Many unions are running courses and events that help reps understand the impact poor mental health can have on people’s lives, including what workplace initiatives can be developed to bring about healthier and safer workplaces.  

But small things matter – such as making the time to really talk to your workmates. And above all, not using the old clichés such as ‘Man Up’.

Mark Everden – Regional Organiser (Education) Unison South West.