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No, men don’t need to ‘open up’ about their mental health

Labour's plans to address a 'crisis of masculinity' ignore the real causes of despondency and pessimism.

Bradley Strotten

Topics Politics UK

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Shadow UK health minister Wes Streeting has claimed that a ‘crisis in masculinity’ is costing lives. To address this, he unveiled Labour’s men’s health strategy earlier this month. This will involve expanding NHS health checks in ‘men-friendly spaces’, like sports grounds, pubs and workplaces. Above all, Labour wants to encourage boys and men to be more open about their mental health. Apparently, men are still too reticent, too prideful, to talk about and confront their mental-health problems.

Be more open about mental health – is that even possible? Today’s Britons – and that includes men – have never been more willing to divulge the details of our mental-health struggles. We are bombarded by mental-health awareness-raising campaigns from charities, tech platforms and celebrities. Diagnoses of mental-health conditions are soaring, especially among young males. And prescriptions for anti-depressant drugs have risen by over a third in the past six years.

Yet while policymakers, state agencies, charities and a whole host of other organisations have ramped up the focus on men’s mental health, they have done so to little palpable effect. Men seem to be suffering from worse mental ill-health than ever before. In particular, men continue to account for three-quarters of deaths by suicide, a trend that has remained consistent since the 1990s. Suicide remains the single-biggest killer of men under 50, a stat that Streeting himself described as ‘shocking’.

It may be a ‘shocking’ stat, but there is actually a simple explanation for it. Thanks to the improvements in medical care in recent decades, men are unlikely to die of much else before their fifties. More importantly, it’s not clear how Labour’s plan to get men to ‘open up’ about their mental health will do anything to tackle male suicide.

Time and effort would be far better spent focussing on those men most at risk of suicide. Policymakers could then set about addressing the real, material problems men face, rather than some vague ‘crisis of masculinity’. If a Labour government were to do so, it would notice that male suicide rates are at their highest in certain rural and provincial areas in England and Wales. It would also notice that these are the very places that have been hit hardest by deindustrialisation, declining living standards and family breakdown. In other words, Labour would be better off focussing on the socio-economic malaise underlying suicide rates and mental ill-health.

Unfortunately, politicians would prefer to run easy, PR-friendly campaigns urging men to ‘open up’ than focus on rebuilding an economy that would provide people with decent-paying jobs, not to mention a sense of purpose and something to live for.

These awareness-raising campaigns not only dodge the real issues behind some people’s mental distress. They also pathologise otherwise ordinary emotions, encouraging perfectly healthy people to start to think of themselves as depressed and perhaps even suicidal. The therapeutic culture being pushed by Labour has already done far more harm than good.

Men deserve better than another sloshy campaign about the need to ‘break the stigma’ around mental health. We’d be much better off discussing the material causes that are driving some men to despondency and pessimism.

Bradley Strotten is a freelance writer based in London. Follow him on Twitter @BradStrotten.

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Topics Politics UK

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