Men’s Health week takes place each year around Father’s Day, and in recent years it’s had an increased focus on mental health. This is for good reason: mental health is the most dangerous health issue facing young men today, and suicide is the leading cause of death in men under the age of 35.
I won’t be sending my dad a token greetings card and pack of woollen socks this Father’s Day, as he committed suicide three years ago. His suicide wasn’t abrupt or cinematic, like a knotted noose, a gun to a temple or a pharmaceutical overdose. This was a drawn out decline before a final sigh of surrender.
I remember sitting in that blindingly white room when the doctor informed my dad – who at this point had skin the colour of a setting sun and was costing the NHS a small fortune – that if he drank another single drop of alcohol he would die. It was his choice. He could live; he just had to want to.
To say that my father found it difficult to talk about his mental health would be an understatement. It was simply taboo – the stampeding elephant in the corner of the room. It wasn’t until I noticed him slip a nip of vodka in his glass before 9 in the morning that I finally puffed up the courage to confront his escalating alcoholism, his increasing loneliness, his withdrawal from his family, his career and from the world at large.
His reaction was a model of macho defensiveness. He accused me of being a hypocrite – and to be fair, as a 19-year-old university student I was no angel. He assured me he was fine, he could handle his drink, he always had been able to – he wasn’t unhappy. How could he be vulnerable? He had everything together. He was a man.
I reacted angrily too, with frustration, dismissal and ultimately estrangement. For years I red buttoned his calls, fatigued by the slurred sentimentalities on the other end of the line; or fits of anger, depending on the day.
Regret is a fundamental, agonising part of grief. I regret many things about my dad’s passing. But the thing I regret the most is that I understood it. I understood his urge to withdraw from the world; I understood the allure of mind-altering substances when depression and anxiety make simple responsibilities seem like an ordeal. I could have sat him down, and instead of attacking him, or accusing him, I could have simply told him ‘I get it.’
But I was too unwilling to discuss my own mental health and my struggles with social anxiety and depression. I could empathise with him, but I couldn’t open up. It’s difficult to admit that you’re anything other than a normal young man, a functioning cog in the smooth and sane machinery of society. I was especially unwilling to share my perceived failings with my dad – someone who’d been there when I was born, who let me sit on his shoulders as we bobbed thrillingly through thronged crowds towards Tottenham games. The man who taught me rude jokes and read me Oscar Wilde’s short stories before I went to sleep. So why did I expect him to swallow his pride and bare his soul to his me, his youngest son?
Why is it so hard for men to talk about mental health? Every person is different, and, I guess, so is every generation. When I eventually came to terms with my depression, anxieties and neuroses and reached out, I was surprised to find a support network of friends and family who didn’t diminish my issues. They helped me beat down the black dog. Considering the climate he was brought up in, that would have been far more difficult for my dad, I think. A call for help was an admission of weakness, something he would never, ever countenance.
So there’s generational progress. It’s clear that initiatives and awareness campaigns are starting to respond to the alarming suicide statistics. But those statistics continue to worsen year after year, painting a bleak picture of the future. Clearly the stigma remains – this silent suffering, this bizarre and outdated concept of ‘manliness’ or ‘manning up’. According to mentalhealth.org.uk, “Societal expectations about how men “should” behave and what masculinity is includes the expectation that men be the breadwinners of their family, and that they display what have traditionally been perceived as masculine traits like strength, stoicism, dominance, and control.’
This toxic illusion of masculine self reliance ultimately leads to enhanced levels of stress and poorer mental health. It makes men find it difficult to be honest with loved ones and, more importantly, themselves. This needs to change. In 2017, 5,821 suicides were recorded in Great Britain – of these 75% were males. Men need to talk, and all of us, from writers to rugby players, need to get the conversation going.
A few days before the funeral, my brother and I tearfully cleared out the flat we’d found and furnished for my Dad when he became incapable of caring for himself. Along with the stacks of Private Eyes magazines, PJ Wodehouse novels and boxes of Camel Lights we began to find bottles – whiskey, vodka, rum – all partially drunk, all hidden with half-hearted shame underneath sofas and behind cleaning products.
There it was: his hidden suicide; his discreet disease – the struggle with mental health he’d fought his entire life, in stoic silence.
Reflecting on this, my brother and I sat on the sofa and put on one of our father’s favourite albums, Revolver by The Beatles. A lyric from Eleanor Rigby pricked my ear:
“Father Mckenzie, wearing a face that he keeps in a jar by the door. Who is it for?”
A charity fighting the good fight is CALM – the Campaign Against Living Miserably. Any man who is struggling with their mental health can have a frank, friendly conversation, and concerned loved ones can join the campaign to take a stand against male suicide and get the tools needed to take action. When these guys say ‘grow a pair’, they’re talking about ears. When men talk, we need to listen. You can donate here or get support here.