Wednesday 24 November 2021

I'm Having a Good Day: Connection and Conversation Inspired by International Men's Day 2021

How goes it?

I’m having a good day. Was on an excellent call this morning about men’s mental health and support groups. Got my MHFA Network call this afternoon too.


That little exchange is from a chat conversation with my friend Brynn last Thursday lunchtime. I’d been pretty low for a few days, which she knew, but when I sent those words I was feeling much better. Being able to say that to my friend was important in itself, because it reminded me there are good days as well as rubbish ones. So what had made the difference? In a word, connection.

The morning session I mentioned was organised through the Men’s Network at work, ahead of International Men’s Day (November 19). The call was led by Gary MacDonald, who founded the Mind the Men peer support group in Glasgow, Scotland, in memory of his cousin Grant Macdonald who was lost to suicide in 2018. The group provides men “a safe place to talk about their challenges be listened to and feel supported.”

The presentation began with some statistics about men’s mental health, including the fact that 75% of people who die by suicide are men, and that suicide is the largest cause of death in men under fifty years old. I’m not a huge fan of stats; I find them hard to hold in my head or relate to directly, but I agreed with a colleague who messaged me privately while Gary was speaking: these numbers are shocking, scary, and unacceptably high.

Gary talked about founding Mind the Men, and how the weekly group sessions provide an opportunity for men to come together and share as much or as little as they feel comfortable doing. The six questions he and his fellow facilitators use to structure the support sessions reminded me of Andy’s Man Club, which operates similar groups across the UK. He spoke movingly of the positive changes he’s seen in some of the men attending the groups, but it’s not only the men who benefit. Their families, friends, and co-workers do too. Gary made a point of acknowledging the support and encouragement of the women — girlfriends, wives, partners, mothers, sisters, aunts, grandmother’s — in the lives of the men who attend.

I came away from the call moved and feeling that maybe — maybe — I might check out Andy’s Man Club or a similar men’s support group if I can find any local to me. As a man who has never felt fully at ease in male company, and rarely felt part of the wider “man clan,” that feels significant. It was at this point in my day that I took my lunchtime walk, and messaged Brynn. We had a video call, and I shared more about Gary’s talk and how positively it had impacted me.

After returning home, I prepared for the fortnightly call I facilitate with fellow Mental Health First Aiders at work. Due to holidays and various work commitments, it was six weeks since we’d last got together. I had very little news to relate, and wondered how we’d fill the hour if the others didn’t have much to share. Five regular attendees had sent apologies, which didn’t reassure me at all! As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. It was one of the best calls we’ve ever had.

I dialled in a few minutes early and found one of my fellow male Mental Health First Aiders eager and ready to go. We exchanged pleasantries and waited for others to join. Five minutes past the official start time there were three of us on the call — all men — so I made a start. We were joined shortly afterwards by another male colleague. I smiled to myself: it’s rare for me to find myself talking to a group of only men. It felt appropriate, though, as I mentioned International Men’s Day and described a few of the wellbeing and mental health calls I’ve attended in recent weeks, I was talking about Gary’s presentation on men’s peer support when a fifth — female — colleague joined us. I mentioned a statistic from Gary’s talk which (if I recalled it correctly) suggested less than a quarter (23%) of men have close networks of friends. This led to a brilliant discussion about how easy or otherwise people – men especially – find it to open up to others (family, friends, colleagues etc) about what’s troubling them. The rest of this post is based on notes I took during the call, with names changed.

We started off talking about who we feel most comfortable sharing with, whether that’s friends, partners, other family members, or professionals such as doctors, therapists, or counsellors. Some said they tend only to share when things get especially bad. I could relate to this, because it’s only in the past ten years or so that I’ve started talking about what’s going on for me (and even more recently that I’ve started blogging about it). Prior to that I tended to keep things to myself. Instead of talking to others, I’d process whatever was going on for me in the pages of my diary. I still journal on a daily basis, but nowadays that’s in addition to talking to people I trust and feel safe with.

Jane said she finds it easier to listen to and help others, than talk about her own situation, which I could also relate to. We talked about how helping other people is valuable and important, but that it can lead to an unhealthy codependency where we need to have people around us — family, friends, co-workers — who need our support in order to feel good about ourselves. This is something I’ve struggled with at times, as I’ve written previously. We agreed everyone is different and no one should feel they have to share with others if they don’t want to, as long as they have other coping strategies that work for them. The important thing is to have people we can call on if and when we want or need to. Our support networks can be of different kinds, as I discussed in a recent blog post.

Malcolm mentioned some of the cultural influences he’s experienced, regarding how acceptable it is — or rather isn’t — for men to admit we need help, for fear of being perceived weak or inadequate. John mentioned the tv drama The Sopranos, which I have to admit I’ve never seen. I hadn’t realised there was a strong mental health thread running through the series until John shared how the character of Tony Soprano battles anxiety and depression, and goes for therapy, but is unable to be honest about his struggles because of the macho male culture he inhabits.

It was really good to have Jane on the call, especially in the context of this year’s International Men’s Day theme of “Better relations between men and women.” I think she found it interesting too, as it gave her the opportunity to ask how things are for us as men. It felt odd to be asked to give my thoughts on behalf of men as a whole, but I think the others felt similarly about it.

Jane asked if there’d been a particular turning point that lead to us overcoming the “man up,” “big boys don’t cry,” “grow a pair” narrative which sadly is still prevalent in society. For Colin, it was something that “just happened” during a chat conversation with a family member. We talked about how important it was that his family member had picked up on what he said, rather than dismissing it or moving the conversation on. That’s something I’ve learned with Fran and other friends. It’s important to pay attention to what someone is saying, and not ignore something that might be a sign they’re struggling or simply want to share what’s going on for them.

I don’t always get it right and there have been times when I’ve failed to pick up on the clues, but I believe I’m learning. I’m still not very confident letting people know I’m low or struggling, and I know how it feels if the person I’ve chosen fails to pick up on my tentative attempts to share. The onus is on me to be clearer about asking for help, but that’s not always easy, especially if I can’t identity — or express — what’s happening. Sometimes I just want to let someone know I’m feeling low, stressed, anxious, or whatever.

In answer to Jane’s question I said there hadn’t been a single turning point for me, but I’d learned the benefits of opening up from being a supportive friend to Fran and other friends over the past ten years or so. I saw how it helped them to have a safe space in which to talk, vent, or otherwise share what’s happening, and realised could it help me too. Talking gives me a different, outside, perspective, and the opportunity for people to suggest approaches I might never have thought of myself.

Jane also asked if we found it easier to share with people face-to-face, as opposed to in other ways. Colin said he follows a number of sports-related accounts on Twitter, and he’s seen plenty of examples where someone has tweeted that they’re not doing too well, and there’s been a really positive supportive response. That’s something I see a lot on Twitter and other social media, although I mostly follow mental health and creative journaling accounts and hashtags.

I said I have some friends where we can share openly and honestly on chat or social media, and others which rely on voice and video calls, or face-to-face meetings now those are possible again. In my experience, it depends more on the personal preferences of the people concerned, rather than whether they’re male or female. Having said that, the vast majority of people I talk to, online and offline, are women, so my experience may not be universal.

Overall, we agreed that while there may be gender differences in how readily men and women share with others, and with whom, cultural factors and personal preference can be just as important. Our conversation was a perfect example of how important, challenging, and rewarding it can be to talk about how we’re feeling, and explore the difference and the similarities between us. We were having such a great time that that when the hour was up we agreed to reconvene next week to continue our discussion!

I’m grateful not only to my fellow Mental Health First Aiders who took part on our MHFA Network call, but also to Gary MacDonald and everyone involved in organising the programme of events and discussions this week for International Men’s Day. I’ll close by sharing four articles I’ve written in the past about men’s mental health in general and my own in particular.

Men and Mental Health: Resources & Heroes

Dear Marty: An Open Letter to Myself


Return to Down: How My Baseline Mood Has Slipped from Positive to Low


Photo by Kaleidico on Unsplash.


No comments:

Post a Comment