Many men feel wary of tapping into their emotional side but it might actually be doing more harm than good, says Jonny Benjamin
A few weeks ago I fell up an escalator at a London underground station. Yes, you did read that correctly - who actually falls up an escalator? Truthfully, it’s not the first time I’ve done it and this time I fell truly flat on my face.
Never mind the pain (agonising), my first thoughts were to compose myself in a bid not to add to the sheer and utter embarrassment. Trying to ‘style it out’, I couldn’t help but notice I was surrounded on the escalator by almost exclusively men, all of whom seemed to be embarrassed for me, most pretending they hadn’t seen the incident, while some of them simply stared. Nobody asked if I was okay.
I was glad of this. Because us men never need a helping hand, right fellas?
When I was growing up, I used to cry a lot. I wasn’t afraid to ask for a helping hand, or a hug. I was very sensitive. I still am, though the difference now is I often try not to show it.
It was on Saturday afternoons spent with my Dad at Selhurst Park watching Crystal Palace play (some) football that taught me how to be a man. In these terraces, on the field and in the stands, I saw grown men crying, even full-on weeping. But as soon as these same men left the match, the stadium, back to their normal lives the tears stopped flowing, and the mask of masculinity returned to their faces.
By the age of seven or eight I had become one of them. It was no longer deemed acceptable by myself or those around me to cry in public, unless of course I was at a cup final in which my team had conceded a last minute pee-roller.
Crying isn’t just a normal bodily function - whisper it - it’s actually good for you. Healthy. A mood booster. There’s a scientific paper in The Daily Journal which claims emotional tears are found to release a variety of chemicals from our bodies, including leucine-enkephalin, an endorphin that works to improve mood.
This stat won’t have consoled a sobbing John Terry after missing a penalty to hand a Champions League final to Manchester United in rainy Moscow, of course, but on some far more subliminal level it will have likely helped temper sadness and lessened stress levels.
“I know a man ‘aint supposed to cry,” went the line from one of my favourite songs as a kid, Marvin Gaye’s classic hit I Heard It Through The Grapevine. So when I began struggling with depression in my mid-teens and crying became a regular occurrence, I didn’t once peek behind the mask I wore.
Up until the age of 20, I somehow managed to keep it all a secret.
But the mask slipped during the first term of my third year at university. At this point I had a breakdown and somehow ended up in the middle of a dual carriageway in Manchester.
I was admitted to a psychiatric unit and diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, a combination of schizophrenia and depression. Yet still, I was determined not to let anyone see me cry.
By this point, I had given up on life and believed I was past the point of no return. Just before my 21st birthday I ran away from the hospital and travelled to a bridge to jump from the edge of it.
While there I was approached by a young man who tried to talk me down. At first I asked him to leave me alone but he then said something that no-one had ever told me before:
“You’ve got nothing to feel embarrassed or ashamed about, mate.”
Those words, so simple, so warm - the effect they had was profound. Finally, the tears began to fall.
As they did, I started to open up. I told this stranger all I had struggled to tell anyone for years and subsequently all the embarrassment and shame that had weighed so heavy on me felt lighter.
Our exchange led to a different outcome to what I had planned for that day.
TEARS FOR FEARS
The following years and my journey to recovery was tough. But as a consequence of that moment on the bridge, I no longer felt ashamed of being vulnerable in front of others. Apart from whenever I fall up escalators it would seem.
Two years ago, I suffered a relapse and became unwell again. The depression and suicidal thoughts returned with a vengeance. But this time I did not disguise them. I spoke to, and even cried, in front of many people during this period. It helped me to recover much quicker than before.
I count myself lucky. I am incredibly fortunate to have not just encountered the stranger on the bridge (who is now a good friend and fellow mental health campaigner) but to allow myself to cry and be seen.
Most men however are not so forthcoming in their vulnerability or emotion. Perhaps it explains why 76 per cent of suicides in this country are male and how it has become the biggest killer of men under 45.
And is not just in the UK that this silent epidemic occurs; around the world, one man every single minute takes his own life. The taboo around the issue hasn’t helped. The suicide rate in males has remained unchanged for 30 years. How is that even possible?
We’ve witnessed massive, positive changes in the western world to race and gender equality, but this damning statistic remains the same, a blotch on society.
CHANGE CAN HAPPEN
Thankfully, the Movember Foundation are tackling the subject through its powerful new campaign and film which is urging men to talk. I urge you to watch the video and share it with those around you, especially the men in your life. You never know if and when one of them may need it.
I’m not ashamed to say I cried when I watched the film just before writing this piece. I’m also happy to admit that I don’t mind crying so much anymore. I always feel much better after a few tears are shed. There's still work to go in bearing that side of my emotion in a public place but I'm getting there.
So perhaps it is time for our society to stop telling men to “man up and get on with it”, and instead that “it’s ok for a guy to cry”. It may even perhaps save a life when we do.
This Saturday 10 September marks World Suicide Prevention Day; Samaritans.org