‘Being a British man means that the idea of talking therapy or counselling with a stranger is like being asked to run naked through a funeral!’ This quote from one of the contributors in my new men’s mental health book, Big Boys Don’t Cry?, sums up one of the biggest challenges men face: the difficulty of opening up about what’s going on inside our heads. And yet, we know how crucial this is for our mental health. ‘Talking’ was number one of the top 10 tips given by the 60 men – and partners of men – who shared their stories of mental health struggles for our book.
The backgrounds of our contributors are very diverse – lawyers, postmen, soldiers, construction workers, Big Issue sellers, businessmen, former professional sportsman – which highlights that anyone can be affected by mental illness at any stage in their lives. Mental illness simply does not discriminate – it’s very inclusive.
The causes of the mental illness described by men in our book also vary greatly: loss and bereavement, childhood bullying, a chemical imbalance, the violence of war, the breakdown of a marriage, sexual abuse – but they do share common ways of combatting mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal thoughts.
The men in Big Boys Don’t Cry? provide over 200 tips and advice for staying mentally healthy, aimed at other men (and women) who may be struggling. We have boiled these down into the following 10 Top Lessons:
1. Talking – without doubt the most important step you can take. Nearly every man in the book stresses how crucial it is to reach out to family and friends when you’re struggling, however impossible it may seem at the time. Not one of the men said they’d regretted opening up about their problems and many of them said it had literally saved their life.
2. Therapy – following naturally on from ‘talking’ is the advice from men to seek counselling. Whether it is group therapy arranged by your local National Health Service, a peer-group or one-to-one therapy with a private therapist, the benefits of sharing your negative thoughts, previously locked inside your head, with an impartial and non-judgmental listener/s are immeasurable. Cognitive behavioural therapy or CBT, which helps manage your problems by changing the way you think and behave, was a very popular approach taken by the men in this book.
3. Medication – many of the men writing in the book admit to feeling sceptical and afraid at first of taking antidepressants – often SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) such as Citaloptam and Fluoxetine or Prozac – but found that medication really helped lift them out of a dark place. Combining prescribed medicine with another of the activities found on this list, especially talking therapy, is recommended as the best approach.
4. Visit GP – often one of the first steps that the men in the book took. Speaking to their doctor was the start of their recovery and just having a trusted, neutral person listen to their problems and offer guidance and support made the effort to pick up the phone and call the local surgery extremely worthwhile.
5. Mindfulness – the simple act of focusing on your breathing and learning to be present – not ruminating on the past or worrying about the future – is a surprising and enlightening gamechanger described by many of the men in the book who had previously thought meditation was, as one writer put it, ‘airy-fairy’. It’s definitely worth giving it a go, if you haven’t tried it before.
6. Exercise – whether it’s an individual activity like running, going to the gym or taking a yoga class – or a team sport like football, rugby and cricket – a large number of men pointed to the proven benefits of physical exercise. Despite often struggling with fatigue, listlessness and a lack of motivation, they found that even five minutes of exercise released those helpful endorphin chemicals that made them feel a whole lot better.
7. Self-Acceptance/Self-Compassion – learning to tame your inner-critic and accept yourself for who you are, ‘warts and all’, was seen as a key step in recovery for many of the book’s contributors. Being kind and compassionate to yourself, lowering your high standards and trying to avoid the pitfall of perfectionism were common themes within the men’s stories.
8. Avoid Alcohol or Drug Abuse – the message from men in the book is clear: turning to drink and drugs (or any other self-medication) to avoid your problems, although very tempting and understandable, is simply not the answer. Those men who have recovered, or are recovering from addiction, say that they only began to get better mentally when they became sober. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and their 12 Steps programme is cited as a great support for many men struggling with alcohol addiction.
9. Faith – having a belief in something greater than yourself – be it God, Buddha, Allah or another higher power – is a great comfort to many of those who shared their story. In a world which places such a high value on commercial and material success, having something spiritual in their lives gave these men a greater sense of meaning and purpose.
10. Hobbies – finding something to be passionate about – just to distract yourself from the ‘grind in your mind’ – was recommended by many of the men in the book. Photography, gardening, Sudoku, a pet dog – whatever you’re interested in – try and make time for old hobbies and be open to new ones too.
If we’re ever going to reduce the number of men tragically taking their own lives, we need to encourage men to open up, not to ‘man up’. Easier said than done, of course with our traditional ‘stiff upper lip’ approach to expressing emotions.
One of the book’s contributors, 57-year-old Gregory, explains how he used to think that, ‘Emotional expression was not for men like me: an ex-rugby player, mixed martial arts and professional businessman. Talk to a stranger? Talk to a therapist? Talk about my feelings? Feelings, as far as I was concerned at the time, were for others.’ But after seeking treatment for depression and suicidal ideation, Gregory describes how he cried every day for 18 months. ‘Looking back, I know I should have talked and cried a long time ago. Big boys don’t cry? This one does and is proud of it. Vulnerability is strength.’
Big Boys Don’t Cry? by Fabian Devlin and Patrick Addis is available to buy now as an e-book from bit.ly/BBDCbuy (£10). 10% of proceeds from the book will be donated to mental health charities, CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) and Sport in Mind
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Fabian has worked in communications for nearly 20 years, publicising major organisations like Sky, ITN and The National Lottery, heading up the comms team for national children’s charity Chance to Shine and, most recently, setting up his own freelance consultancy, Devlin Communications.
Fabian is passionate about mental health and, following his own experience of anxiety and depression, he has co-curated a men’s mental health book, ‘Big Boys Don’t Cry?’. The collection of 60 stories from men from different backgrounds with lived experience of a range of mental illnesses, was launched in May 2020 (bigboysdontcry.co.uk). Fabian lives with his wife and daughter in South West London and enjoys mindful meditation, playing cricket and walking his King Charles Cavalier spaniel Star.