In the 1990s I attempted to read a biography on David Beckham but stopped halfway through, bored with the uninteresting tale of someone I thought of as bland: Thirty years on and I am transfixed watching the new Netflix documentary on the very same football icon. Simply called ‘Beckham’ this is anything but bland. It’s an excellently constructed filmography and well worth watching, even if you aren’t a football fan but, like me, have an interest in learning about a relatively humble guy who lives an extraordinary life with fame and incredible fortune.
That said, it’s not a tale lacking in adversity. Of particular interest to me was a seminal moment in his life when he received a red card whilst playing against Argentina at the 1998 World Cup. When England ultimately lost that match on penalties, the blame was unfairly put on Beckham, and he became public enemy number one. The whole country hated him, and that’s not as much of an exaggeration as it sounds. Wherever he went, he was subject to abuse every single day and in his own words “I was a mess”. His wife, Victoria, recounts that Beckham was “clinically depressed and absolutely broken” during this period.
It is evident from the documentary that in those days there was very little awareness of mental health. The amount of abuse Beckham experienced would never be tolerated today but back then you were left to face it and suck it up. Even the tough, paternalistic, and authoritarian management style of Alex Ferguson, while apt for the time, would be out of place in football today. Manchester United team-mate Gary Neville said of the period: “It was inhumane what he had to deal with and it would have broken 99.9% of footballers.” As a friend of mine said, the experience made Beckham a man! He received no support for what he went through during that period, but he showed exceptional mettle! Others might not have been as fortunate.
We may be more aware of mental health these days, but our increased awareness doesn’t mean we don’t have a problem because we do and it’s a big one, specifically when it comes to men. Consider these UK statistics: someone dies every 90 minutes of suicide and more than 76% of them are male; suicide is the single biggest cause of death for men under 45 and the single biggest cause of death for 15- to 49-year-olds; the category of 19- to 35-year-olds is twice as likely to report being in a crisis personally than any other group; lastly, 16- to 24-year-olds are currently the fastest growing group in history to exhibit suicide ideation.
What is going wrong? There are many thoughts on the matter but certainly the way we frame the problem might be part of the problem. If we were to say woman are 3 times as likely to kill themselves as men, I think we would look at it through the lens of it being a societal issue and we would immediately move to seeing what investments and changes in behaviour would address that problem. Yet when we say 3 times as many men are killing themselves, we tend to use terms like accountability, or we say things along the lines of ‘if they would just open up more about their emotions’ or ‘they need to get their act together’. As Professor Galloway commented on a recent podcast said, “it is as if we have decided when it comes to men that compassion is a zero-sum game and if you feel bad for men it immediately sort of outs you as someone who may be anti-women.”
In the past few years much, attention has been given to – let’s call it – levelling the playing field for woman and as a result males are often seen as perpetrators, aggressors, or the root cause of problems and that surely is bad for their psyche? Then there is Toxic Masculinity, the idea that there is only one way to “be a man”—strong, tough, unfeeling, and aggressive. Add in other staggering statistics such as the fact that men are 4 times more likely to be addicted & 12 times more likely to be incarcerated and those negative voices around men echo louder; as such, people have developed a gag reflex when it comes to male issues. This is a group which is struggling, and we need to stop using words like accountability and blame, and replace them with compassion and sympathy.
Evidence suggests that men are significantly less likely to use mental health services in response to a mental health issue in comparison with women. Men who are suicidal or have substance abuse problems are much more likely to suffer in silence. This is often attributed to stubbornness, rooted in traditional notions of masculinity that emphasize “true grit” doggedness. Men are often expected to be the breadwinners and to be strong, dominant and in control. While these aren’t inherently bad things, they can make it harder for men to reach out for help and open up. Another explanation is that mental health services are not finely attuned to men’s needs as they tend to be geared towards women, emphasise medication or talk-therapy whilst research suggests that men may prefer taking action over words in the face of stressful situations and utilise role models in the mental health space.
Whether such differences have arisen through nature or nurture, it’s clear that separate approaches to men and women’s mental health are required. Not everyone can bend it like Beckham; some will just break.