On 14 January 2008 Jonny Benjamin went to Waterloo Bridge to take his own life. A stranger, 'Mike', stopped him that day and changed his life forever. Six years later this is the documentary about his search to find the man that saved him.
Men have evolved alongside women and make up half of the human population. Humanity is gendered. Yet we still do not really think of men as having “gender issues”. It somehow feels wrong to put it in those terms. As a society, we (both men and women) lack curiosity about what pressures and issues arise from being of the male gender. This may be partly because of a mythical belief that men are somehow doing OK and run the world anyway. Whilst some men are very powerful, however, the vast majority are not and powerful men are doing nothing in policy terms for their “brothers”. There is still very little research into the psychology of being a man or a boy despite the fact that there are obvious gender differences in life expectancy, rates of suicide, addiction, crime, getting assaulted, homelessness and educational performance.
As a psychologist and just as a human being who is trying to understand the human condition, I find this relative blindness to the male gender very striking. What is behind this silence about the gendered emotional worlds of men? Might the cause of the silence also explain the stark gender differences described above?
If we look around us it is not hard to find consistent evidence that there are ancient rules of masculinity that put pressure on men (and from a certain age boys) to think, feel and behave in certain ways. These rules can still be seen in everyday life and in the stories that we tell ourselves in books, films, plays, TV shows and in popular culture. Myself and colleagues have hypothesised what these rules look like and we are beginning to research them to see if they can help to explain for example why men are less likely to seek help and more likely to go through with suicide.
These rules have already been “road tested” on various focus groups and found to have strong face validity. There are only 3 simple rules:
1. A real man is a fighter and a winner
2. A real man is a provider and a protector (of women, children and others)
3. A real man retains mastery and control
If we assume that these deep-seated “hero” rules are always acting upon men then it helps to explain why men can feel such “masculine shame” for example if they lose their job or need help or direction of any kind. These rules also fit with what we know about the evolution of the male as a fighter and hunter. The big question is whether these rules can change in a modern world or to what extent we have to help men find more modern ways of living up to them. For example, men can be given the message that they are taking control by seeking help, not losing control. Whatever else we do, we need to honour the male gender as having its own identity, needs and issues and we need to start designing our society to take account of the specific needs and differences relating to both genders.
We love Billy Bragg's Handyman Blues and it depiction of a men's group in a DIY superstore. The video, directed by Johnny Vegas, features a host of funny men, including Phill Jupitus, Stewart Lee, Neil Morrissey, Ross Noble, Kevin Eldon, Ricky Grover and Samuel West. Handyman Blues is the new video taken from Billy Bragg's Top 20 UK Charting album 'Tooth & Nail'
I was introduced to Ben Brooks Dutton’s Blog by my partner. She knew I’d be interested in what Ben was writing about and she told me how sad she found his story. I work as a clinical psychologist in crisis and emergency adult mental health services and I frequently hear many sad life stories. I maintain a professional distance so I can look at individual situations objectivity to help people manage through difficult times. When I read about Ben and his son I was at home away from my professional life and like many other people who have read Ben’s story, I too cried.
On 10th November 2012, Ben and his son lost a wife and a mother. The circumstances around the loss are tragic and you can read more about Ben’s story at http://lifeasawidower.com/ I’m not going to repeat Ben’s story here. What I would like to consider is the way in which Ben is going about managing his grief, the challenges Ben highlights about being a widower, and the connections Ben has been able to make with a wider audience, many of who are also widowers. I would also like share my own experience of reading Ben’s story and my own relationship to loss and grief as a man in his mid-thirties.
Following the loss of his wife Ben started a blog to share his experience of loss. He highlights a belief in talking about his experiences to help process what happened. He talks about his search for support networks and how little support there was when he looked, especially support from and for widowers. I know from my experience that male specific services are rare at best and the specific needs of men as men are often overlooked, not least by men themselves. Ben is one man who hasn’t overlooked this. He has brought it to that attention of the public through his eloquent blogs. The absence of services and the lack of attention to the psychological needs of men was one of the main observations that started my interest in men’s mental health back in 2004. It is also one of the main drivers for creating Men’s Minds Matter as it stands in its current form.
Another reason for starting the site was to challenge unhelpful cultural masculine norms that affect the psychological wellbeing of men and boys. Ben’s blogs challenge many of the unhelpful masculine scripts about how men are expected to cope with loss and emotions. Whether we agree with these scripts we are all influenced and affected by them to differing degrees. Ben challenges this often unchallenged orthodoxy and he brings certain legitimacy, as a man, to other men’s grief and grieving. He challenges the masculine script of suffering in silence head on by putting his heart and soul out there. To do this is not easy because it can be in conflict with dominant masculine norms that promote a different view of strength and resilience. It is something that is often discouraged in men and boys and it is something that men and boys don’t get to have a lot of practise doing. Ben seems to be a natural and his approach to me demonstrates strength and resilience through acknowledging and accepting emotional vulnerability.
In addition to managing his own emotions Ben is guiding his two-year-old son through his grief and coping with the challenges this presents. There are fundamental differences in how children and adults process loss. In sharing his experiences Ben taps into some of these differences and the challenge of trying to adapt in ways that enable his son to process the loss too. This is not easy task! In his blog Ben asked himself why he was hiding his tears from his son and questioned how helpful this was for his sons own grieving. I think Ben raises an important point here about finding a balance between the containment of the difficult emotions for children and a real honesty and demonstrable connection with the shared emotional experiences. It is also an active example of men’s ability to think about the needs of others. These are skills that popular culture would sometimes have you believe are absent in men.
Ben also asks questions about why he found it challenging to find other widowers. Being able to share with other widowers was something Ben sought but was unable to find easily. By asking this question he goes on to reach out to others who have, or may be, struggling alone in silence. Ben has achieved this by sharing his experiences and actively demonstrating an alternative model of coping for men. The success Ben has had reaching out to other men (and women) has been inspiring for me to observe and we know that Ben and his son are not alone because of the responses they have received from other men and women who have lost.
Ben’s story strikes at the very heart of grief and grieving. Their loss was unexpected, not part of the plan so to speak and I can only imagine how painful such a loss could be. The feeling loss brings is painful, so painful it can feel numb. It takes time to recover from and involves a process of being with and tolerating the painful embodiment of loss. Sometimes sadness dominates, sometimes anger, sometimes disbelief. Sometimes the bottom drops out and we’re suspended in a world of fear and uncertainty. It lasts forever and the affect remains with us. For most people, most of the time, the painful emotions loss brings do become less intense, less frequent and less distressing. We draw on friends, family and those close to us to help us through. Sometimes this might not be enough and we may need to look elsewhere for support from others who have experienced similar loss or to professionals. It is often said that it takes at least a year for grief to begin to resolve but this would be variable. If things continue to be very distressing after some time then it would be advisable to seek some additional support.
Although I too have experienced grief it is different to what Ben and his son have, and are enduring. I have lived life with both of my parents around, my brother and sister are doing well and I have a grandmother who is healthy in both mind and body. My partner is also well and her family too. I did lose two grandparents this year both through dementia. I also found out that a close friends sister is terminally ill and does not have long to live. I admire my friend’s strength and my thoughts go out to him and his family. Loss and bereavement is there for me and since my thirties I have become closer to loss and the potential to lose. I am more aware of my mortality and the mortality of those close to me. I remember when I began to become more aware of my own finality. I was driving on a country road in Devon with a good friend when suddenly I had an overwhelming uncomfortable feeling of dying. I’ve had similar feelings in the past but this was qualitatively different. It was also the beginning of a closer relationship and on-going reflection on death and finality. I imagine a life without people I love and care for more now than I have in the past. Such thoughts come with the existential embodiment of finality which at times feels uncomfortable. I have learnt how to cope with this and recognise that it brings an opportunity to change my own values and expectations. I realise life is fragile and that people can be taken before their time. I try to accept that loss is inevitable and that it’s indiscriminate. I don’t know when loss will come but I do know that it will. I know that when it does my life and the lives of those close to me will change forever. I find myself preparing for loss before it arrives. I find myself avoiding it too. When it comes I hope that I will be able to cope. I hope to be able to help others cope and I would like to receive help too. This help will inevitably come from those close to me in the first instance. However, I might need to look beyond those close to me to find others who understand and share similar experiences. If and when I do have to look outwards for support I hope that there is help and support there. If there is not I hope that I can be as active as Ben in creating support for myself and for others.
Those of you who are familiar to Men's Minds Matter will know that the site started out as the host for my online doctoral research project. My research looked at men's attitudes towards seeking professional psychological help. If you are interested there is a link to the theses on this site under past research projects. Since completing the research I have been busily working behind the scenes to develop the site into a resource for people interested in men's mental health and the psychology of men and boys.
Seeing as the site is new I would welcome your feedback and if you have any ideas on how to take the site forward then please get in touch.
Interested in writing something for the MMM blog? Why not get in touch