Opinion: What positive masculinity means for a new generation of dads




Digital Editor’s note: I’m very pleased to welcome today’s Guest Writer Don Esson. Don is Director of Partnerships and Development for Spurgeons Children’s Charity, publishers of Dad.info. In this article Don opens up about some of his deeply personal experiences, insights and understanding of parenting and mental health.

Don writes: ‘Toxic masculinity’ can have a direct link to mental health among men. As a society we’re all too familiar with this negative term that is used to package up everything men are supposed to avoid. Yet, is there a baby and bathwater moment where we are removing the very thing that makes men, well men?

The real issue is that society hasn’t addressed what standards and attitudes men should strive towards, or in other words, positive masculinity. As the statistics reveal, this couldn’t be more timely. Evidence from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) clearly indicates that the single biggest killer of men under the age of 45 is suicide. Not cancer, accidents, or anything else.

Diving deeper into the statistics, the common thread is men are less likely to ask for help.

ONS statistics show that since the early 90s, men have been at least three times as vulnerable to death from suicide as women. Men are dealing with the effects of social expectations on masculinity, meaning they are less likely to admit when they feel vulnerable, I know for me I can struggle to ask for help when I need it most. In the absence of asking for help men are likely to self-medicate and ‘numb’ the mental load with alcohol and drugs which can reinforce depression and increase impulsive behaviours.

So, for Men’s Mental Health Awareness Month, I’m thinking of the dads who fall under the age of 45 and how they can be better supported.

There is no blueprint for how dads can raise the next generation with their mental health and well-being intact. I’m a dad. I have two daughters who I co-parent with my wife. I am also a man who knows what it feels like to be in a hole and not know how to get out of it. My life has not always been straightforward.

In the space of 12 months, my family faced multiple blows including various health challenges, and I found myself wondering ‘Can this get any worse?’. My wife later fell down the stairs suffering severe fractures and my daughter was diagnosed with hip dysplasia and underwent major surgery. I cannot tell you the pain I felt as a father watching my 18-month-old daughter drift under the effects of a general anaesthetic. Despite trying desperately to keep it together, my stress levels went through the roof.

I grew up around very poor mental health and have witnessed the effects of suicide. I know what a battle with one’s mental health can do to someone and as we endured this difficult season, I diagnosed myself with everything under the sun. I thought I needed to be locked up.

My Christian faith is a guiding light in my life, and I’ve been fortunate enough to understand what the author of Hebrews is talking about when he writes: ‘We have this hope as an anchor for our souls, firm and secure’. Despite the ‘feeling’ of things not improving I could draw upon the faithfulness of God in days gone past to know that if He’d got me this far, he’d be there as this season continues.

In prayer, I was prompted to contact a friend who was able to connect me to someone he knew could help me. This person’s day job is being a sports coach and he has a background in psychotherapy so when he told me I didn’t have any of the things I had self-diagnosed, I started to listen. He said: “You’re stressed”. He gave me tools to manage my stress like walking and breathing exercises. Though I thought they were ridiculously simple at first, to my surprise they worked.

Finally, he told me that I probably just needed some ‘buddies’ around me.

I got out of the hole by asking for help, but many dads don’t have the same roadmap to help as I did. 

Not every dad has a coach for a friend on the other end of the phone.

Ryan, a 38-year-old dad from Kent lost two brothers and one cousin to suicide and two of those deaths happened in the past year. Having had a mental breakdown two years ago, he describes himself in ‘crisis mode’. “I have struggled all my life with my moods. I have always tried to deal with things myself, but this resulted in alcohol and drug abuse to numb the pain, creating another problem, and worsening my mental health.

“Men tend to hide things and not talk as freely as women about their feelings. For me, hiding my issues led me to the point of needing specialist and intensive therapy, the kind of service that isn’t as readily available. For many men, it’s too late before the support reaches them.”

In a society that so comfortably challenges toxic masculinity, why aren’t we making room for men to talk?

Typically, men don’t ask about other men’s feelings.

Add fatherhood into the mix and you’re met with the added worry and responsibility of how this impacts the children. Critically, dads who find themselves in this place often feel as if they’ve failed their job of being ‘dad’. The term ‘positive masculinity’ presents an alternative approach that we should pursue, rather than its toxic variation just being something we should avoid.

To dads I say, it’s less about fixing your problem and more about becoming vulnerable. 

Ryan did a skydive to raise money for the cause and in memory of those he lost. He said doing what he can to help, in turn, helps him. He is an important part of the change although he still has a daily battle with his mental health.  

As we raise the next generation, we have an opportunity to make change possible for our children. To invite a friend for a pint or coffee and tell them how bad your day was is a culture shift and so is asking another man how he really is. The more our culture starts to shift, the less easy it will be to ignore the gaps in support for dads and, equally, support for all men.

To be a part of the change, fill out this anonymous survey to share how you’ve felt since becoming a dad: https://www.videoask.com/fc82ux5lj

Photo Credits: Samuel Martins, Juliane Lieberman and Donovan Grabowski all via Unsplash

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In the quest to bring you more insights Sorted includes interesting articles from specially selected Guest Writers. Each piece is carefully chosen and edited by our own Editorial Team to inform, inspire and entertain our readers.

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