I’m not sure how old I was when I was first instructed that boys don’t cry – at a guess, maybe six or seven. Once it began, it came at me from all angles: family, teachers, friends, the myriad voices of media and culture. Like pretty much all boys, I learned that tears and sobs were markers of failure. Whether facing up to playground beatings, bullies or teachers, the rules of the game were simple: if you cry, you lose. As little boys begin to construct the identities of grown men, the toughest lesson to learn is toughness itself. Never show weakness, never show fragility and above all, never let them see your tears.
With such beliefs (literally) beaten into us from an early age, it is easy to be shocked by the candour of the former footballer Dean Windass. In a heartbreaking interview on Sunday he described two suicide attempts in the past few days. “Everyone thinks that Dean Windass is a laugh and a joke and a kid blah blah blah, and got loads of money and his wife and kids are lovely,” he told the People. “But that’s all a mask. I was in pieces, I couldn’t stop drinking or crying. I’ve cried every day for the last two years.”
Coming just weeks after the dreadful loss of Wales manager Gary Speed, the interview has again focused attention on the mental health of sports stars. Professional athletes undoubtedly face unique problems, but it would be a mistake to think this is just football’s problem. One out of every 5,700 men will kill themselves in any given year. The rate is between three and four times higher for men than for women, and highest among men under 35. In recent years, suicide has become the single largest cause of death for young men, overtaking even road traffic accidents. In the UK, more people die from suicide every decade than have ever died from HIV/Aids.
We are looking at an epidemic, and worse, an epidemic that society seems content to accept. There is little apparent concern that men underuse primary healthcare, and are consequently less likely to be referred to mental health services. With most psychiatric professionals accepting a causal link between suicide rates and socio-economic conditions, worklessness, poverty and insecure employment, prospects of these statistics improving in the near future look bleak.
While politicians and health services could certainly do more, surely we have a wider responsibility as a society to examine how we implant and enforce the damagingly rigid, insular stoicism that underpins our understanding of what it means to be a man. Most of us recognise that women’s sexual continence has been traditionally policed by prevailing social attitudes, but it’s less often observed that men’s emotional continence is policed in a very similar way.
As I’ve written before, attempts by men to address their own gender-specific issues are often greeted with hostility and disdain. Last year, the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, revealed that he sometimes shed a tear listening to a moving piece of music, and that he took personal attacks to heart. The response from some journalists, such as Christina Odone in the Telegraph, was vicious attacks on a “blubbing big boy”. Jane Powell of the brilliant charity Calm, who knows more about this issue than most, responded: “Telling men that they should at least pretend to be invincible, shouldn’t show feelings, should be strong and silent if they want to be a ‘real man’, is destructive, selfish and plain nasty.” Even the Guardian is not immune. Recently one professional attempted to bring a successful Australian scheme to the UK, which uses the imaginative hook of garden sheds to get men discussing and addressing their own mental health and wellbeing. The response was an article mocking the very idea that men might need help, and demanding to know why it wasn’t being offered to women instead.
There is no single, simple solution to the suicide epidemic. The first stage must be to acknowledge the problems, at both an individual and societal level. It takes immense courage and strength for men to speak about their own mental health, flouting our deepest conditioning. For that reason, we should not only wish Windass a full recovery from his current illness, but recognise that in speaking up and seeking help he did something more courageous, more important and, perhaps, more truly manly than anything in his distinguished career on the pitch.