Guys on Mental Health: Part One
There were several reasons for this lil series. We want to know how to support the boys in our life, be it partners, friends, brothers, dads or colleagues. The second was to challenge the man-up mentality that we assumed existed. But as we started hearing what the guys had to say, we realised the conversation has evolved from that. As a country we seem to be slowly moving away from avoiding mental health as a whole, but we are yet to empower and equip people to know how to actually offer help when someone does open up, or to help them understand what it feels like to struggle. We hope that hearing from the three following guys will provide some insight into that, as well as encourage you to seek more and more knowledge, understanding and empathy for your own loved ones.
So massive respect and appreciation to Sam, Cam, and Jeremy who have shared a bit of their wisdom with The Oh Nine, as you will read over the next week.
Sam, 30, Deputy Principal.
I don’t think I was a very happy teenager, but then I feel like I maybe came right for a little while. As I started to get into proper grown-up adult work, at times feeling a bit out of my depth, I had my first experiences with full on anxiety. The way I experience it is pyschosomatic, where I have really bad back pain that makes my back feel really brittle. And that probably started in my early twenties, I didn’t realise I was getting anxious or that it wasn’t a normal thing - I thought everyone got like that.
The more I had certain life experiences, the more I confronted the reality of myself with the perfect image I had in my head. And when those two things didn’t match up, I experienced heaps of cognitive dissonance and I had a lot of guilt and shame that told my brain I had a lot to worry about and all the good things in my life would be taken away from me. It meant that I couldn’t enjoy anything, I was always guarding myself and isolating myself to be okay.
How would you explain anxiety to someone who just doesn’t get it?
How it felt to me was like bad weather. So when it was really bad I would get anxiety for like four months at a time. For the first month, it was like a dark, heavy thunderstorm. The second month it would be like grey clouds, third month overcast and fourth month it would break up with patches of blue sky. You just always had it there and that’s what it felt like to me.
I’m really angry at my experience with anxiety cause I feel like it stole a lot from me. There so much good around us, so much joy and things to be grateful for and I feel like anxiety robs you of that and makes think you always need to be ready for the next disaster.
Are there things that people could do that you found helpful in that time?
One of the things I’ve learned about is the importance of strong relational attachments, so if you know people are going to be around you, supporting you, you don’t scrutinise everything as much. What I’ve really valued over the last five years or so, is that my mum and I became really good friends and she’s learned to see where I’m coming from first. So asking me good questions and letting me just come round for dinner, sit and not do anything. Just letting people do what they need to do is important, you don’t even have to do anything, just being there is enough and knowing they are not disappointed. So maybe for an anxious person, vocalising you don’t need them to be anything, that no matter what you will be on their side. So the person’s brain can calm down and know even if my life goes completely balls up, I still won’t be by myself.
Do you find it a hard thing to bring up with your guy friends?
I actually think there is a willingness to talk about it, and there is less of a stigma, but there aren’t many tools yet. So guys don’t know how to be there for their mates, they don’t know what questions to ask or how to use their words. My thinking would be, there’s a willingness, it’s not weird, they just aren’t sure how to go about it. I find guys just struggle to start the conversation at all, it feels awkward. But even just being asked is good. Just being a good mate.
We've been reading lots recently on self-care, are there practices you’ve found that helped?
One of the major things that really helped was I started journalling. Every morning I would go to a cafe and read something that would reconfigure my mind onto something else - I would write everything down that was going on in my head. Then when I could see it on paper, it was like I had dealt with a little part of it. I got to the point where I couldn’t not do that, it really stabilised me and now I don’t need to do it as much. But it was a lifesaver at the time, I had good stuff going in and bad stuff going out and I could externalise a lot of my pain so it wasn’t a part of me anymore, I could see it separate from myself.
You’re a deputy principal, are mental health struggles prevalent among the kids you teach?
There are a lot of anxious kids. Kids can get really anxious by taking a lot of responsibility that they don’t need to in families. I think it comes back to attachment again, if they think one of their significant attachment figures is unpredictable or they have to earn their love, they can become anxiously attached. So that can present in the classroom in a way that they are really searching for your approval, often in pretty disruptive ways. And I think the mistake teachers have made in the past is punishing the bad behaviour and let them deal with the consequences. But actually you should be asking why does the behaviour is presenting itself in the first place. What need are they trying to meet?
Research shows that kids play up for two main reasons, to avoid something or gain access. So you have to ask yourself why they are acting up and help by giving them tools, and give attention in a good way. You need to become a solid attachment figure for your students, pushing them but also showing them that their achievement is not the be all end all, and that you just love hanging out with them separate from what they produce.
Is there anything else?
Yeah, it’s okay not to be okay. Most of the time when you experience anxiety and depression, its cause you have been holding it all together for a long long time and you’ve been trying really hard. And sometimes you just get really tired. It’s okay for you to not find it easy, and it doesn’t make you weird - in fact everybody finds it too hard at one point or another.
In the early 90's, Eugene Peterson was asked if he thought pastors face more difficult problems today than in previous generations. I loved how he answered and I think I’ll leave it with his words! He responded by saying,
"I know this is a mixed-up, difficult, damaged generation. But it's arguable that the main difference today is not how much people are hurting, but how much they expect to be relieved from their hurting. The previous century suffered just as much; in fact, probably much more. Just think of all the illness, death in childbirth, infant mortality, plagues. The big difference today is that we have this mentality that if it's wrong, you can fix it. You don't have to live with any discomfort or frustration. And the pastor is in the front line of people who get approached: "Make me happy. Make me feel good."
"Perhaps the real issue here is that we are constantly bombarded with narratives about human experience that insist that life should be about one carefree roadtrip after the next and to expect life to be a fulfilling and exhilarating journey of adventure. That to experience anything else, to suffer, is in fact wrong. Maybe that's the issue. We've convinced ourselves that suffering isn't supposed to happen to us. That it's not necessary. And we are certainly not okay with not being okay. So we try to make it stop rather than dealing with it. We avoid the source."