There’s nothing toxic about masculinity

Wise Guys Training logo. Image: Charlie Bluglass

The words ‘mental health’ have always come with a range of baggage, and have been mostly avoided for the best part of 100 years. However, with statistics such as, 1 in 6 adults experiencing a common form of mental illness each week, it is becoming increasingly difficult to evade such a predominant factor of everyday life.

The statistics bear a heavy weight when considering that many individuals struggling with mental illness often attempt to take their own lives. In 2018 there were 6,507 suicides in the UK alone and tragically, it is estimated by the World Health Organisation (WHO), that there were 793,000 worldwide deaths by suicide in 2016.

These statistics account for both men and women around the world, however, it has been recognised that there may be a gender difference when it comes to suicide rates, a phenomenon that is often referred to as the ‘suicide gap’.

Mental health is commonly thought to be a genderless issue, yet men are three times more likely to die by suicide.

Although the statistics are vast, the attitudes towards mental health in the 21st century are shifting within the UK. Schemes offered by the NHS as well as helplines such as The Samaritans are widely accessible via both places of work and education. However, if social pressures are hindering the individual at risk from seeking the help they need, this can sadly lead to them becoming just another statistic.

So why is suicide now the leading cause of death for men under the age of 50, when high levels of depression are more prevalent and diagnosed in women? Many believe it is due to the negative socialisation and societal pressures that have been associated with masculinity since the beginning of time.

Mental health protest placard.

Mental health protest placard [Flickr:Liz Spikol]

Phrases such as: “Man Up” and “Boys don’t cry” are not uncommon when describing the emotional state of male behaviour. Used against almost anyone, these phrases are in actual fact, harmful. Any sense of fragility amongst males has been shunned, in turn causing a generational build-up of emotionally stunted individuals.

When asked the question: “Do you think phrases such as, ‘man up’ or ‘boys don’t cry’, are detrimental to male mental health and wellbeing?”, some of London College of Communication’s male students seem to be in agreement, claiming they have all been affected by these damaging stereotypes.

The fact that all three of the students wished to be anonymous perhaps emphasises the deep-rooted issue society has when it comes to men being emotionally upfront. The first willing to answer the question, a third year Graphic Design student, admitted that he has fallen for the masculine stereotype, saying he has not cried for “as long as [he] can remember.”

“[These phrases] reinforce the stereotypical male role, putting pressure on men to keep their emotions bottled up in fear of being seen as weak or judged by both their male and female peers,” he says.

The second, a photojournalism student who agreed, however, at first seems a little more apprehensive to open up, reiterating that he wanted his statement to be kept anonymous: “These phrases are definitely detrimental to male wellbeing. Men are stereotyped to show no weakness and be strong, but everyone is different, some men are emotional and being forced to keep that inside because of fear, can really take its toll on the mind.”

The last, a third year art direction student, explained how his family history had pushed him into the ‘conventional male role’: “As the eldest child from a single parent family without a paternal figure, I think these phrases and attitudes were commonplace in my household growing up. Due to my family circumstances, I had been put on a kind of pedestal where I had to ‘stop acting like a girl’ and ‘man up’ and as a teenager I would often repress emotions in fear that my family would fall apart if I did not ‘man up’.”

Explaining how the pressure to become ‘the man of the house’ stunted his development, a sad truth that many with the absence of a paternal figure face, he concluded: “I feel like my experience outlines the actions and attitudes seen in our current society and even though the conversation and awareness has been quite prevalent recently, people will still act on these outdated views whether that’s consciously or not.”

This lack of male emotional education is often times reflected through the education system, seemingly a starting point for negative socialisation of vulnerable groups. According to the Department for Education, the permanent exclusion rate for boys in schools based in England was more than three times higher than that for girls. A factor that many schools are attempting to alter through extra educational means.

The educational duo Wise Guys Training are attempting to change these factors, spreading the message: if positive socialisation is reinforced at secondary school age, then the stigma surrounding male mental health will gradually become defunct.

Based in the city of Lancaster, between Manchester and Liverpool, Charlie Bluglass and Geoff Brand are striving to conquer pessimistic male stereotypes amongst young men aged 14-17.

Wise Guys Training was created when both Geoff and Charlie realised there was a gap in the market for young male mental health support: “Work was being done with young women by the female workers and at one point some of them were saying ‘well, what are you doing with the young men?’ because it became clear that you can’t do one without doing the other, as you’re then just assuming that the boys don’t need support with their issues as well.”

After both having been trained as youth workers for the local authorities, Charlie and Geoff, alongside female workers, taught separate gender classes with year ten students in the community schools. However, when cuts to their funding meant they could no longer carry out these informal educational classes, the pair looked into educating young men as a separate business: “we decided that we wanted to start doing that again and find a way to start going back into schools, eventually perhaps work with firms that predominantly employ male apprentices.”

Charlie admits at the time, not everyone was supportive of their separate gender classes: “Some workers were saying ‘well isn’t every night young men’s night?’, because men can often, in traditional settings, dominate the work time and behaviour.” Although men have had the upper hand within the workplace industry for many years, men are at a disadvantage in the emotional sense. In an article in The Guardian, statistics showed that 28% of men admitted that they had not sought medical help, compared with 19% of women. A reason why, Charlie feels, it is vital to encourage their work.

The motive for Wise Guys Training stemmed from the substantial factual evidence surrounding male mental health, “If you look at the stats around men and young men: three out of four suicides are by men, young men are more likely to die by suicide than in a car crash, there’s greater rates of exclusion in schools amongst young men, they’re more likely to be diagnosed with special educational needs and make up 83.7% of the prison population.”

Charlie continues, “Some of that is due to socialisation and a more limited range of emotional expression, which means that where women might be given a wider emotional repertoire in order to contextualise their problems and seek support, young men aren’t.”

The Wise Guys say the ideal ages to educate on these matters are around 14-17, due to the fact that they are “working out what it means to be a young man in today’s society and they’re transitioning from boy to young man.” Charlie says, “Being a boy includes being protected and provided for, whereas to be a man you’re expected to, if you buy into these stereotypes, be independent and not dependant, the provider of, rather than provided for.”

Within their classes, the Wise Guys use certain exercises in order to aid the young men in opening up emotionally, whether that be consciously or subconsciously. “Usually they engage well, as we don’t have right or wrong answers and it gets them to think about things that they haven’t perhaps thought about before. We say that it’s OK to have a laugh about it- we’re seen as a bit of fun, which is a good position to be in,” Charlie says.

One of their more popular exercises include a lesson on assertiveness: “We do a whole session on assertiveness, the difference between being assertive, passive and aggressive.” Charlie explains the aim of this session, “I don’t think our society gives us many examples of how to be assertive, we get plenty of examples on how to be aggressive. The young men often say things like ‘I don’t want to be seen as weak, so I need to dominate the argument’, but we give them the skills to be assertive without necessarily having to resort to verbal or physical violence.”

Example of Wise Guys Training exercise.

Example of Wise Guys Training exercise [Facebook: Charlie Bluglass]

Charlie also says these workshops have been having a positive impact on the individual students: “We received some statistics from the local comprehensive about how our sessions had been affecting the young men, and it was quite positive according to the pastoral worker, in regard to attendance and general behaviour.” Again, emphasising why it is vital to tackle emotional socialisation at a young age. He continues, “that’s part of the reason we think it’s important to do these sorts of exercises, looking at the reasoning behind why these sort of emotions are more difficult to publicly express and what are the consequences of that.”

Although Wise Guys Training emphasise the importance of separate gender classes, Charlie says the sessions also encourage young men to think about gender equality within society.

“Another exercise we do is called ‘Words about women’, there aren’t really many good ones, so we encourage them to come up with examples of these words, in order to understand the negative connotations they hold for both men and women.”

Charlie continues, “A lot of individuals see feminism as a negative thing in relation to men’s right, but that’s not the stance we take at all. For the last 20 years women have faced a lot of empowerment, which is a positive thing, but men have kind of been socialised that they shouldn’t have any issues surrounding empowerment, even if they do.” Through teaching the young men about female empowerment, the Wise Guys are enabling them to think about why they should, too, be empowered in the emotional sense.

Having worked with a range of schools, in the future, the Wise Guys would like to further their reach: “What we want to do is develop an offer for the private sector, with firms that might be taking on largely male apprenticeships.” Charlie explains, “Companies often think ‘once you employ them, that’s the job done’, but a lot of young men we work with, who are from difficult backgrounds or who have struggled with their education, to actually get into an apprenticeship is quite an achievement.”

“So what we want to do is develop something around managers or HR managers in those sectors to understand and support them better, enabling them to thrive with these opportunities.” Alongside relationship break down, loneliness and being unable to open up, one of the leading causes of male suicide is work related stress. So, as the Wise Guys suggest, giving companies skills to support their employees before they take drastic action, is vital.

Through Wise Guys Training, Charlie and Geoff want to break down the negative stereotypes surrounding masculinity- one of them being the use of the phrase ‘toxic masculinity’. “It’s not that I don’t think it [toxic masculinity] exists, it’s just that it has become a tarnished term because when people hear ‘toxic masculinity’, they don’t hear there are some types of masculinity that are problematic or toxic, they just hear masculinity is toxic.”

Charlie says, “we prefer to talk about traditional stereotypes of masculinity, some of which may be negative, so what we say is, if you expect to be the perfect man in a traditional way, you can be as macho as you like, but this can cause problems.”

When asked to define masculinity, Charlie explains, “In some ways I’d rather not define masculinity at all, as I think there are as many types of masculinity as there are men.”

“If you look at some of the attributes of traditional masculinity, for example being a protector or being decisive, there’s nothing inherently masculine about these qualities, they’re human qualities.” Charlie concludes, “both men and women can be strong etc, what we’d like boys and men to be able to do is pick out the elements of masculinity and femininity that suit them, and to feel confident about how they want to express this and to never feel obliged to fit any stereotype of masculinity.” A powerful message that is vital to tackling the taboos surrounding masculinity and male mental health.

You can find out more at the Wise Guys Training website.


Featured image: Charlie Bluglass

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