It was a very surreal experience to watch the funeral procession of my 22-year old friend Daniel who was but a month younger than myself and who I had shared numerous happy memories with.
With school friends gathered on a bright and sunny autumn afternoon there was a strange scene of both youthful life and energy alongside the fact that one of our own was now gone. As a school year-group we were all quite close and mostly everyone got on with each other.
We lived in small city area with a good mix of urban, rural and coastline and it was common to know people from different areas who one didn’t go to school with.
We had all lost another school friend around two years previously due to a motorbike accident which was a sudden shock and I can remember the moment I found out to this day. This sunny autumn day the same sense of loss hung in the air but the means by which it had come around were different as my friend had decided to take his own life. Both of the guys I had known since primary school when I was around 9 years old were now gone and sadly I couldn’t help but feel that sometime soon another one of us would be gone.
It is quite common now to know about the high rate of male suicide and I sometimes wonder what reason it was that brought my friend to take his life. Was it depression? Was it a sense of not belonging or a confusion about what it meant to be a young man in the world? I don’t know for sure and never will know. Perhaps it was a mix of all those reasons or just one but I know for sure that Daniel wasn’t just the only man to feel the way he felt and he sure wasn’t to be the last.
Since leaving university I have had a lot of uncertainty, hardship and hurdles to face and sometimes it all felt like one was knocking one’s head against a brick wall. Luckily, I had two factors which helped me navigate the tough times. The first was a great small group of friends who had similar interests and common problems and we were all at the same point in our lives. The second factor was meeting a supportive and strong willed young lady who helped me find balance and identity in a stable and loving relationship. We are now engaged and have been living together for two years and I still talk regularly with my small group of friends if not quite as regularly as we used due to the demands of full-time work!
These two factors I feel have given me stability and a chance to build my character and identity via interaction with those who I both care for and whose judgements and opinions I value. I feel also that talking was the first part of the process of finding my place in society but it then had to be followed by deciding to adopt a certain view of both myself and of the world and then sticking to it. I personally feel that while talking about these issues is the first step towards leading a mentally healthier life I also feel that we need to follow that up with decisive and positive action to help you take further steps in your own life.
Talking about men’s mental health issues is a great first step but it should not be the last step.
After having talked about life issues and sometimes ‘male’ issues and concerns with my friends it definitely helped me sort out issues in my mind and realise that I was not the only person with issues, worries and concerns. As the saying goes, a problem shared is a problem halved and it definitely helped having people to talk to.
After that though the worries and concerns would sometimes return and there would be a sort of cycle of talk, feel good, wait a while and then the problems would return and the cycle would repeat itself.
The next step I gradually came upon was to decide what sort of man I wanted to be and what values I wanted to adopt and then stick to them as much as possible.
I watched a lot of Jordan Peterson and his work on the masculine identity and his wider works on psychology which shed a lot of light on the basis of what the masculine archetype was. I also read a bit of Jung and have always felt an affinity with ancient Greek writers such as Plutarch and Aristotle which helped me inform my own conception of what values I wanted to be a part of my life.
By talking and then figuring out what sort of man I wanted to be and what values were important to me I found it easier to stick to a plan if you will and measure myself against how I met my own criteria.
I then talked to my friends about my worldview as it became a part of my character and I could sense my own growth as a result of the similarities and growing differences between my friends and myself which was a positive thing as variety is good and leads to interaction and growth.
The third step for me was accepting that my sense of what it meant to be a man wasn’t necessarily what was best for others and might be criticised by others.
Part of this step was accepting that there is no right answer to what it means to be a man and you can’t make everyone happy with how you view your own identity as a male. Part of this was letting go and in a sense not caring what other people thought while at the same time respecting their point of view and engaging politely with them where you agreed and disagreed.
By not trying to find the perfect masculine archetype that would please everyone I finally had the chance to mentally relax and build up my own idea of myself and measure that against the thoughts and feelings of my close friends and those who I valued.
I feel that this mentality is not prevalent enough today in our society where we teach men that it is okay to have your own conception of the masculine identity and that you should stick to your guns while also of course being respectful to other’s opinions.
Talking is the first essential step to mental health but as a society I think the discourse has to go towards teaching men to take action and to be bold.
Thinking too much can be a bad thing in my opinion. Video games are a great example of men trying to be ‘active’ in a testing situation as fundamentally setting challenges and taking action and overcoming hardship allows you to find out who you really are.
Sitting in offices at computers isn’t exactly conducive to the male spirit and I believe this leads to a bit of built-up frustration in guys who want to be adventurous or define themselves to others when anyone can sit at a desk and do the same job as you with enough time and training.
To summarise this article up I have lost a good friend to the crisis that is male suicide. I often find myself thinking of Daniel and how he would be feeling if he were alive today. I also have a strange sense of a debt to him as his decision often reminds me not to take life for granted and to think that at any time my time could be up and he has helped me not to be too hard on myself and to sometimes be okay with feeling concerned or uneasy but to seek advice when I need it.
Talking is a great first step and I believe this site can help men open up and interact online as I did and still do with my close male friends which helps put things in perspective and opens up new thoughts and ideas.
I would encourage younger guys though to focus equally on talking, deciding and acting in equal measure. Talk about what concerns you or how you feel. Decide after talking what you have learned and incorporate it into a philosophy of life and identity and then challenge yourself to stick to it and do things that will test that idea of yourself. By doing this, hopefully one can build a more secure masculine identity and try and lead a happy, strenuous and fulfilling life.