Last night, like the first snowflakes of winter, a soft flurry of private messages from men started to fall in my inbox.
It’s the same every time I write a personal blog about The Black Dog and is one of the reasons I love writing this blog.
The messages came from a mix of men and women, so seeing as how my post yesterday was most applicable to women, today I am focused on men, and whilst many of the points to be made are equally relevant to women, this story is written with my lens trained singularly on men.
Over the time I’ve taken a personal interest in mental health, I’ve been honoured to act as the sounding board for a range of men; turning a sympathetic ear to listen to you, and sometimes providing a kick up the bum when you need to take action, often times towards professional help.
Today, I speak with the voice of an observer with a keen interest in your male wellbeing, as a parent of boys also, but importantly, not as a professional mental health practitioner.
As I observe my teen boys and their friends hurtling towards manhood, it is abundantly clear to my curious eye that peer pressure is a fundamental driver for teen boys and until becoming a parent, I had not truly appreciated just how strong the peer pressure is for them or how it manifests. Once the first flushes of puberty have settled into the deeper voices and closed bedroom doors of the young man, few decisions are made without consultation with the Tribe. Decisions, however well founded, are deemed by them to be sound if they are socially acceptable by the Tribe. In other words, the decision process is largely thus, “Will this decision make me seem manly, strong, capable, brave, will I gain approval, or will I be seen as weak?” To be seen as weak is to be excommunicated from the Tribe and thrown alone to the lions.
It is the very same peer pressure we see manifesting in adult men. Track a man through the competitive years of early career where it’s all a bit of a laugh, a dog-eat-dog game, until suddenly life morphs to one of adult responsibilities, mortgage, wife, kids, school fees, holidays, and whammo, life on the hamster wheel has begun and you’re so busy running you can’t jump off.
Suddenly you’re all grown up
Fast forward to your forties and into the fifties, and the hamster wheel is still turning. Mucking around with your mates, laughing, deciding whether to jump, swim or go to the pub is something your kids do but a long distant memory for you.
You, meanwhile are making big decisions every day about deals, or court cases, or whether to buy or sell this portfolio, or that company. Every day you hang over the precipice wondering if you’ll make the right decision and what the consequences will be if you don’t. Some of you love it and thrive on the buzz, but some don’t and it is for you who don’t that the problems can often begin and you start to ask “what is this all for?”
We look to the workplace and what do we see? A purpose founded on making money for shareholders, which is indeed a purpose, yet for some, a purpose isolated from any sort of meaning or personal fulfilment and when you confront the reality, your mental wellbeing takes a nosedive.
The dichotomy of teen conditioning
Let’s step back to the peer pressure of teenagehood for a moment and “will I be seen as weak?” It is in this very question that men find themselves in a no-win dichotomy. If you could speak up about the pressure to perform, the absence of purpose, the isolation of self, you could access the very help you need, yet you cannot risk being seen as weak and have the Tribe on which your and their families’ financial well-being depends, eject you.
And, so the spiral begins, be strong, push through, be a leader, roll out all of the messaging in any order you like, vulnerability is not yet widely admired, and to be depressed is to be vulnerable. Your thinking might go like this: I can’t admit to myself let alone anyone else that I’m blue so I’ll ignore it. Yet paradoxically, admitting it to yourself is exactly what’s required.
Going back once more to the teen years were so many of our values are formed, you as a boy learned to find joy in mateship and there’s a reason for that, we humans are social animals conditioned to travel in packs for protection and strength.
A while back I wrote about how cycling is an effective panacea for men’s mental wellness. Exercise is a fundamental tool for managing mental wellbeing and quite naturally alters the brain chemistry offering up a flood of feel-good chemical goodies to the neural spaghetti we have coiled in there. There is no doubting the science on that topic.
On the topic of chemical manipulation, many choose the bottle as a means to manage the blues, craving the temporary euphoria swiftly followed by the numbness. I lived with an alcoholic for many years and have seen again and again how quickly the down follows the up, and the ensuing self-disgust. The emotions of resolution cycling to defeat is exhausting to witness, but a terrible storm in which to be caught and sadly alcohol itself is a depressant which renders the entire self-medication exercise self-defeating.
In the next story on this topic, I’ll talk through some of the strategies you’ve told me you use to manage some of the issues we’ve highlighted here. If you have any winning tips yourself, or any comments tag me on Facebook or drop me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
Meantime, please consider what role mateship and connection play in your life right now, and how they might play a more active part in your adult life.
Look after yourself, won’t you? You matter.