The comedian has been outspoken about his battle with depression. But many men struggle to talk due to childhood messages to toughen up
Last week Stephen Fry spoke movingly, not for the first time, about his experience of bipolar disorder and suicidal impulses. When the interview aroused the usual smattering of ill-informed comments, Alastair Campbell tweeted rather brilliantly: “To those asking what @stephenfry has to be depressed about, would you ask what someone has to be cancerous, diabetic or asthmatic about?”
Monday marked the beginning of Men’s Health Week, and the theme this year is challenging the stigma of mental health. In speaking frankly and honestly about their own experiences, and in their support for organisations such as Mind and Time to Change, Campbell and Fry have done more than most to open the space for discussion. To disclose one’s deepest frailties requires real courage, especially for many men, weighed down by the plate armour of masculine norms. One senses from Fry’s interview that it may be easier for some public figures to speak to audiences of hundreds or even millions than it is to speak to a handful of close friends and family.
One active participant in Men’s Health Week is a consultant and men’s group co-ordinator called Kenny D’Cruz. He wanted to lift the veil on his own life story and mental health, and commissioned me to interview him for his own website. [I discuss the case here with his permission.] His story was remarkable, particularly for the light it shone on the interactions between mental health, gender, race, class and social status.
Born in Uganda to a Goan-Indian family, he was eight years old when his father was declared an enemy of the state by Idi Amin and the family was divided, with Kenny, his younger brother and mother travelling to Britain as refugees while his father had to be smuggled out of the country. The parting words from father to son at the airport would weigh heavily on those young shoulders for months and years to come. Straight from the cliches of every tragic old movie, Kenny was told: “You are the head of the family now, you must look after your brother and mother.”
Under any circumstances, that is an impossible demand to make of a young child. In little Kenny’s case he carried it through months of refugee detention centres and a relocation to an impoverished new life in an all-white Welsh village. Initially, the family had no idea whether their father and husband were alive or dead. He eventually rejoined them nine months later, by which time both adults and children were displaying symptoms of prolonged emotional stress and trauma. Kenny’s drive to keep the family (including his parents) clean, fed and cared for quickly began to manifest itself as OCD and anxiety, digging the trenches for a lifetime’s battle to maintain mental health and emotional wellbeing.
This true story serves as a shocking parable of how gender expectations shape our mental environment and how, as the feminist dictum has it, patriarchy hurts men too. For most, the mechanics are more subtle but no less real. Reams of research papers have demonstrated how boys and girls are socialised differently, and their behaviour is interpreted differently from their first kicks in the womb onwards. Infant boys who display anger and aggression in response to stress or frustration are more likely than girls to be indulged or rewarded by parents and caregivers; when the response is sadness and anxiety, the reactions by gender tend to be reversed. This helps to set in place a lifelong pattern in which boys and men are more likely to externalise anger and distress into violence and antisocial behaviour and are less likely to seek help with personal problems of all sorts. They end up more likely to take drastic, solitary steps to self-manage or self-medicate their problems.
There is little evidence to suggest men suffer significantly more (or, for that matter, less) from mental ill-health than women, but plenty of evidence that they experience it differently, manifest it differently and cope with it differently. There may be many reasons why women fill the doctors’ waiting rooms while men fill the criminal and coroners’ courts, but I doubt any is as significant as the gender lessons children learn in their first few years.
As part of Men’s Health Week, the organisation Men’s Minds Matter have tried to spark a conversation about the creation of a Men’s Institute. They envisage a network of local groups helping to reduce isolation in men and provide a supportive environment to help men cope with the demands of modern life. It’s an admirable idea, although I worry that it may be trapped by the same paradox that has undermined other similar efforts – men’s most pressing problem is often their unwillingness or inability to seek and accept help. I hope they learn from the success of the Men’s Shed initiative, which has shown that the best way to talk to men about their welfare is often by talking about something else entirely.
Such measures to improve older men’s social support are welcome and necessary, however there is an element of the bolted horse and the stable door to many discussions on this topic. Just as many girls can be immensely harmed by the impossible cultural demands to be pretty, slim princesses, so too are many boys immensely harmed by exhortations to never cry, toughen up and be a man. Please, let our children be children.