Picture credit: Howard Kingsnorth/Getty
Artillery Row

Small talk and big asks

Men’s mental health is a serious matter — but it is wrong to expect people to be lifesavers

If you were a lone woman who saw a man who “might need help” standing on the edge of a train platform, what would you do? The Samaritans has produced an advert suggesting you “trust your instincts”. 

Fine, then. Mine would be not to approach him; men trying to push women under trains, while not the most common occurrence, is common enough to make me wary. Only this is the wrong answer, or rather, I have the wrong instincts. According to the Samaritans, I should approach him and ask where to buy a coffee. “You could save a life.”

The advert is part of the Samaritans’ #SmallTalkSavesLives campaigns, aimed at preventing male suicide. In itself, this is a worthy aim, with suicide being the highest cause of death for men under 50. It is a problem so serious, and so monumental, it might seem churlish to question any proposal at all for preventing it. Why prioritise your own selfish fear? You could save a life!

Yet I do worry, and looking at responses to the advert, I know I am not the only one. Male mental health is not something I take lightly. As the sibling of someone with paranoid schizophrenia, I think about it a great deal. I have thought about it long enough, however, to know the dangers of simplistic narratives, ones in which there is only ever one person at risk, only ever one fear that needs to be overcome. When I look at the Samaritans advert, I see something which I have noticed behind closed doors — the pressure on women to be saviours, alongside the belittling of any cost to them — being increasingly normalised in the public sphere. 

The message that men’s mental health — and with it, men’s very lives — come before women’s safety is one with which women who live with mentally volatile men will be very familiar. These women will often be told their safety isn’t much at risk and that to think otherwise is “stigmatising”. Or the argument might be that the risk is real, but that this only makes these women’s “caring work” and “tolerance” all the more important. Either way, they may find themselves up against something so big, so potentially tragic, that they must suppress their own fears and deny their own self-interest. I think many people do not even know this is happening. To describe it at all is, of course, highly sensitive. What I will say is that these situations are far more complex than people watching from afar, polishing their mental health “anti-stigma” credentials, ever realise. 

In recent years, the belief that how male people feel is more important than whether women are safe has become embedded in mental health and social justice activism. Worried about the male person in your toilet or changing room? Actually, it’s on you to “protect them from harm”. Don’t want to share a prison cell with a male person? Then you’re selfishly ignoring their “mental health crises” and how “isolated and distressed” they might feel. 

Disturbed at the number of incels wanting to rape and kill you? Then you’re guilty of “demonisation” at a time when incel mental health is “through the floor”. Wary of the man on the edge of the platform? Well, just as long as you know that if he kills himself, it might be your fault. 

Women are not support humans

I do not think any of these messages are acceptable. They are, at best, dismissive of all the attention women already pay to male emotional lives and well-being, and, at worst, a form of blackmail. Women are not support humans. It cannot be the case that our own needs and safety can always be trumped by male threats of self-harm. 

No one wants to witness another person in deep despair. I know from my own experience that you can feel guilt — such enormous, tremendous guilt — if you are not doing enough to protect someone who is delusional from the judgements of others. To speak of your own fears would be a betrayal (writing this is probably a betrayal). You’re not allowed to be the main character in this particular story.

I know women who spend a great deal of time listening to male partners whose mental health crises dominate the family setting. If anything ever happened to these women and/or their partners, there would no doubt be news stories on how “hidden” and “unspoken” these men’s suffering was. It does not make the suffering any less valid to point out that the expectations placed on these women are unreasonable. It is not okay for women to be told that if their emotional support services are not up to scratch, a man might kill himself (or her, or her children). It is not okay in a domestic setting, and neither is it okay on a train platform. 

The emotional labour women put into supporting unhappy men is, like so much women’s work, invisibilised. When a service is not noticed or appreciated, the recipient can still be left feeling deprived. It should be possible to promote men’s mental well-being without putting pressure on women to conclude their own anxieties are less valid, or that they haven’t done enough listening, or that female safety concerns are frivolous in comparison to male distress. 

In Hysterical, Pragya Agarwal notes that “while there has been much focus in scientific research on men’s mental health and emotional suppression due to gender norms — and justifiably so, when we have seen the disproportionate impact of suicide rates on men — there has been little research into the impact of emotional suppression and gender norms on women”. Agarwal points out that the fact that women are already expected to be more empathetic can mean that for them, “the toll of performing and feigning emotions every day, while also suppressing frustration and anger, can be acute, resulting in higher daily stress levels”. 

It is incredibly stressful to spend every day fearing that someone else — whose distress is deeper, more complex, more violent than yours — might die if you do not support them sufficiently. It is one thing for the Samaritans to say that if we are kinder and more open to one another, everyone’s mental health will benefit. It is quite another to put out an advert which suggests “you could save a life” by doing something which could not only make you uncomfortable but put you at risk of harm. It is too great a weight to place on the shoulders of others. Women should know that self-preservation will never mean they have blood on their hands.

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