"I never expected to lose a friend to suicide."
Image courtesy of Wix
Over the past several weeks, I have spoken with four individuals who have undergone and seen the struggles of feeling emasculated. The world is filled with men who feel they cannot speak out about sexual assault, mental health or, simply, sadness. I also spoke to women who feel unsure of how to reach out. According to the Movember Foundation, “globally, on average, one man dies by suicide every minute of every day”.
The night Luke Edwards*, 21-year-old Kent student, got sexual harassed, he was in a night club smoking area. Working behind the outside bar, a male stranger kept approaching him. The surrounding was filled with the usual array of students, drinking alcohol, and talking amongst each other drunkenly. Luke was working the late shift, serving drinks, and chatting to customers pass the time.
The stranger approached during the first hour of the night before his visits became more frequent. He asked: “Has a guy ever hit on you before?”. Luke brushed it off, thinking of it as innocent, feeling as though he was overacting.
The hourly visits turned to half an hour visits, as the stranger continued to make sexual and inappropriate comments, which progressively grew more grotesque. It reached the end of the night and the stranger comments about having sex with him. The stranger told Luke “I’d fuck you if you want to”.
What made Luke feel dehumanised and livid was not the sexual comments or the stranger’s intentions. It was that if he were to say what had happened, it would be made fun more than be taken seriously as sexual harassment.
After work, when the stranger and students had disappeared, he went home and was trying not to think about what had been said, or the fact that he was walking home alone shortly after the occurrence. Luke feared he would not be taken seriously by anyone he opened up to about the harassment, whether that be his teammates or friends, due to his gender. He told me: “It was as though men being raped or sexual harassment was seen as a joke or myth, something almost impossible to talk about.”
Luke felt society wanted him to be tough. “It’s normal for a girl to be sensitive, but I must remain reserved. A sensitive boy is seen as being weak and generally as a bad trait”. He found it hard to talk about male worries, such as body positivity “which is aimed at women way too strong in comparison to men”. Luke found that comments made about the male body tend to be accepted way more than about women’s bodies. He said: “Situations would occur where I’d see individuals with new marks on their arms every once in a while, but I felt it wasn’t my place to ask if they are alright, but just hope they talk to someone to get better”.
Luke realised he was not the only male who experienced mental health issues or fear of being judged for having undergone sexual harassment. Although still feeling that it is really hard for men to talk to each other about serious mental health issues, he found promoting awareness can only be healthier for people. He stated: “The university needs someone to be there to tell you who to contact someone that they would see as a person they can talk to, who is there for them”.
In the summer of 2016, Alex Hastie felt his depression peak. He had just finished his GCSEs and was looking to take the next steps. “I have experienced many battles with my mental health, but I have, luckily, never resorted to self-harm.” However, during this time, Alex was at a low point.
He had planned to meet up with his friends and celebrate finishing his exams. But he could not put himself together. He could not pretend to be okay to his friends, or risk his friends seeing him overwhelmed. His summer had fallen through as Alex just could not enjoy activities he used to love doing.
He felt as though he was a liability, unable to hold responsibility, never knowing when he was going to have a breakdown. Locking himself to the confines of his room, Alex would replace those days in the sun with his friends with excessive amounts of sleep, as an only escape.
Having joined a sports team at the University of Kent, Alex found that others affected the way he has been, including those from back home. He told me: “I would be able to describe a breakdown and have a few of them share an identical story, they knew what it was like. They felt I was describing their breakdown. But, although I felt I wanted to help, I thought about how I can help when my foundation isn’t secure?”
The phrase ‘man up’ echoes around many men’s heads. Alex felt this phrase harshly. As a man, “my emotions never had a place out loud, but only in my own head”, for fear of being ridiculed for expressing emotion. “Mental health doesn’t come to mind for a normal bloke. An emotional talk wouldn’t fit in with pub conversations, so I believed it surely wasn’t acceptable to discuss emotions, ‘man to man’.”
Struggling to bottle it up, Alex broke down. One night, the “I’m okay” he’d robotically tell his mum was unable to escape his lips as he opened up to her one night. He told the truth of his mental health struggles, totally broken down. Only then did he have a total lack of any confidence or ego left in his mind to tell her everything.
“When I had been in the trenches, I realised men’s mental health isn’t in the movies, it’s not in books, it’s not on TV, so how are young men meant to be educated on how they express who they really are and how they feel without being alienated”.
Alex searched for a textbox on how to “be a bloke in our society”, but he quickly realised it is not a case of trial and error. University was an important time in Alex's life, in terms of his realisation of the flawed “idea that blokes don’t have emotion, they just carry on their usual life’s without showing their true self”. He realised he could not live this way.
Alex felt that bringing attention to these pressing issues was the main incentive for him when it comes to raising awareness for mental health and men’s emotions. His university can only offer five free counselling sessions to the poorest demographic in society, being a student. “It’s abysmal,” Alex told me. Joining Movember and promoting speaking out about any mental health struggle was something that made him feel better about himself.
Jessica Brown* was walking through one of the University’s college corridors with her boyfriend Matt after a late night out. Matt had a breakdown in the smoking area of the night club, tears streaming down his face. He ran out of the club, and she knew she had to get him away from anyone else as quick as possible. She knew if his football friends saw him in this state, they would never let it go. Pushing past the clumps of bodies, across the dancefloor, up the stairs and out into the open air, Jessica chased after him. When they were out of the club and stood behind trees, Matt collapsed onto the floor in a heap. Passers-by were looking over, and Jessica told me she feared “they would judge”. She dragged Matt into one of the colleges, expecting it to be safe from the judging stares of those passing by, en route to the 24-hour medical centre.
He was sobbing, heaves coming from his chest. Jessica told him “breathe slowly”. He stammered, “I can’t”. The college was full of groups of post-clubbers. Matt’s face was covered with tears. “I remember his eyes, broken, and fragile containing such sadness.” All Jessica wanted was to go home with her boyfriend.
They kept their heads down, Jessica trying to shield passers-by from seeing Matt’s tear-stained face. But it was useless. A group of boys stopped walking to stare at him. Sniggering at the sight of a male crying and nudging each other. Anger rose in Jessica’s throat as she shouted, “there’s no need to stare”.
As Jessica and Matt rounded the corner, they heard shouts of abuse behind them. Matt snapped. He spun around and shouted “f**k off!” at the top of his lungs. The words “wet wipe” and “p***y” were tossed around behind them, but all Jessica could respond was “leave him alone!” Everything felt useless.
Jessica feared for what would happen next as they were backed into a corner by these strangers. But campus security rounded the corner at that moment, breaking up the tension. Matt pushed through the double doors of the exit as campus security diffused the anger of the other men as he told them “he’s had a rough night”. One of the men scoffed, responding “so have I, my uncle died”.
Jessica felt so angry. She wondered: “Is life just trying to one-up each other on who has the most tragic experience?”
Campus security calmed Matt down by telling him to clean himself up and that it was not his fault that he felt low. Although the security guard could fix the damage of his hand by telling him to go to the medical centre drop-in clinic, his emotional state was not something that security could force him to go and fix. Jessica told me: “Due to the negative response from these strangers, Matt felt he couldn’t talk to anyone of his friends”. Jessica wondered, “would it have been a different response if it had been me?”
Jessica[EF8] mostly wants to promote that men can cry too and that women should get involved in promoting how it is okay for men to display emotions and being there for any brothers, husbands, boyfriends, family or friends in their life’s.
Arthur never expected to lose a friend due to suicide. His routine consisted of university, playing rugby, and hanging out with his friends. But he never expected a suicide to happen.
Although he had never experienced any extreme moments of battling mental health, he felt affected by the occurrence. He watched the death of the individual he knew tear the family apart, none of them suspecting the suicide. “It deeply affected my sister, who struggled with the news. I couldn’t bear to see how broken a family was after a suicide,” he told me.
Feeling you cannot share emotion can make the emotion worst. Arthur found that not fitting in with the ideals of masculinity was a struggle many men face. Like the breakup of a relationship, you are most likely to hear ‘don’t be a pussy’ in your ear as opposed to a comforting speech is something men felt pushed down by. After suicide tragedy, Arthur really wanted to do something to keep men from dying young.
Arthur wanted to promote the importance of suicide awareness and to tackle the negative effects of toxic masculinity. He admires those who keep fighting against being emasculated or overcoming difficult times for mental health. He said: “Fighting is one of the hardest as we don't know our brains as well as our bodies. It is important to encourage men to talk about their problems”.
Feeling oppressed and overwhelmed with emotion, Joe, Luke, Jessica, and Arthur felt they wanted to do more to help men’s mental health, especially those in sports teams. They each took to fundraising, getting involved with the Movember cause and raising awareness. They also spread the awareness to their sports teams, a place where many individuals feel they cannot share their distresses, forming a close-knit circle around them and promoting awareness in their clubs.
*The names of individuals in this feature have been changed to respect their anonymity
This article is part of our one-off edition of IQ Magazine, out from November the 29th 2019. Pick up the magazine on campus in our InQuire distribution bins in Keynes, Co-op, the Templeman library and other locations on campus.