Mental Health & Me, by Phil Edgerly

20 May, 2020

An Unexpected Impact:

The Great Men Project, Mental Health, & Me

By Phil Edgerley

Recently I signed up to a local skills-based community service that aims to put people in touch with each other to offer their services and skills, whatever they might be, free of charge to whoever might need it. A simple notion: I have some skills or time and a willingness to offer something to someone who might be in need without the expectation of remuneration. The payment is in the giving. A weekly email is sent out with the various offers and requests which last week had a particular request which caught me unawares and made me catch my breath.

A man had simply written a statement very near to (but not exactly) the following;

‘I’m feeling lonely and would like to meet new friends”.

On reading or hearing something of this nature my guess is that many of us would empathise and some of us will want to help in some way. However, truth be told this was not the dominant response I had at the time. What struck me most and has continued to have such a profound impact on me, was the simplicity of this man expressing his feelings with such clarity and then most importantly, being able to then ask for help.

It was a written expression of the simplest and most human of gestures; a hand outstretched seeking for human contact.

When I approached the Great Men project to start volunteering with them at the start of 2018, my main motivation was to try and do something practical to change the way in which the world that my daughters are growing up in operates for Women. In the weeks and months following the Weinstein and Spacey revelations and in the wake of the #metoo campaign, I felt a need to do something proactive. Certainly there were other possibly more ego-based reasons of the the “I’m not that kind of man” type but the primary one reason was as an increasingly fearful father of 2 girls. What was completely unexpected was the impact the training and subsequent contact with the organisation would have on my own wellbeing and mental health…

The training itself afforded me an opportunity over the course of 2 days for enlightened discussion. But rather more shockingly (given that I had completed 3 years of professional training in Mental Health Nursing at University) was that it was the first time I had ever had the opportunity to really listen, reflect, and discuss in a safe and non-judgemental environment information and ideas on topics including gender equality, gender identity, masculinity – both positive and toxic – sexuality, and the social expectations and pressures placed on boys and men by negative stereotypes and the damage that it is causing to all of us both individually and as a society.

Through the continued contact with Great Men, I have gained knowledge and an awareness that I simply did not have previously. It has led to a significant and enduring change in many of my attitudes and beliefs.

One such change is that I have attempted to find greater freedom, articulacy, and honesty in experiencing and expressing my emotions.

Like many men, the dominant male role model in my childhood was not a man who was emotionally articulate. Actually, he couldn’t really manage emotion at all…except anger, I remember he was very proficient at expressing this. In his house, for anyone but partially a boy to express emotion was seen as unmanly and essentially wrong. Crying was definitely not allowed, being scared even less so and could result in violent outbursts towards me and sometimes but less frequently my siblings. The risk of this was also higher if Mum wasn’t around. The rigid definition and absolute rules, as he saw them, of what a “normal boy” and consequently a “real man“ is and does was repeatedly made crystal clear to me in those early years.

Needless to say, I failed miserably and repeatedly in adhering to his rules and expectations. I was, apparently in a similar vein to Robert Webb outlined in his touching and witty book How Not To Be A Boy and  Greyson Perry in his astonishingly insightful The Descent of Man,  and like so many other men, not considered a “normal boy”.

However, despite this I have always considered myself as someone emotionally available and fairly articulate. I want to embrace emotion and be sensitive to it… I’m a modern man after all!  I work in the arts and emotion and feeling are my stock and trade. I choose to live and raise a family in Brighton after all! I must be…

Well, parts of this are true…at least in intention, if not in actuality.

In truth, I haven’t addressed any of it properly and the effect has been periods of depression, anxiety, and pain that I have spent more than 35 years attempting to manage, hide, and ignore but never truly face.

However, with increased knowledge comes increased choice, and solidarity affords increased confidence and after many years of running away from the impact and effect of that early brutal “conditioning” I have finally started to seek help and guidance in freeing myself from those enforced and I now understand frankly bizarre ideas of what a “normal boy” and consequently a “real man“ is.

I am absolutely certain that I would not be do- ing this if weren’t for the contact support and knowledge I have received since joining The Great Men Project. They have taught me at a fundamental level to pay attention. To others. To myself.

With this week being Mental Health Awareness Week, it feels essential that we continue to talk about the damage that historically has been, and continues to be, done to boys and men through negative male stereotyping; and the work that initiatives like The Great Men Project are doing at re-educating men and boys in this area. The work is surely vital for all of us.

I worked for many years in adult mental health services and my wife and many friends continue to do so. Listening to their discussions and experiences it seems as if contrary to the widely held notion that the future will always bring development and advancement, in the area of Mental Health, the long-term underfunding and second-rate treatment of services in the UK have led to a crisis in our management of and treatment for people who experience mental health issues. With the Samaritans Suicide Statistics Report for 2017/18 reporting that male suicide rates in the UK is currently around 3 times higher than that of women, and with rates for women being at their highest in a decade, and for younger adults those rates have increased by nearly 24% between 2017-18, our collective national mental health is not merely crying out for attention, it is screaming for it.

One final detail that I would like to share which has remained with me from the training was when a participant spoke about how they now regularly ask their male friends if they are ok or do they need to talk about anything or even just simply say “I love you and I am here for you”. One man to another, one human being to another.

Maybe in this week of Mental Health Awareness, we should all try and do a little more of that? In 2020 the need is surely more important than ever! Maybe we can reach out to those people, no matter how near or far the physical distances between us are and offer that thing we all need and crave at some point but so often are afraid to ask for. And by extending a hand – physical or not – we too experience that astonishingly simple and beautiful feeling of human contact.

The is why I believe so many people (myself included) felt the need and were able to respond to that simple request…

‘I’m feeling lonely and would like to meet new friends”.

It was brave for him to express it and it took nothing to respond but a little time. We can do that…we do have time.

(This is revised an updated version of an article I was originally commissioned to write for Mental Health Awareness Week 2018).

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