Men of Australia, we’re fucking up.
We live in a country that routinely tries its very best to murder us with ultraviolet rays, box jellyfish, seven of the world’s deadliest snakes, incredibly venomous spiders and questionable late night kebab meats.
We are a breed of men described the world over as tough, daring and nigh-invincible.
And yet, we’re literally killing ourselves.
Notice I said literally. I do not intend any form of hyperbole in that statement. We, Australian men, are indeed killing ourselves better than anything else that nature can throw at us.
Suicide has routinely topped the leading cause of death for young men in Australia. More than road accidents, heart disease, skin cancer — you name it.
It turns out, we’re bloody good at everything we do — including killing ourselves. Except for one major thing — talking about mental health. And we die for it.
Soften the Fuck Up
Three years ago I joined a project that set out to do something about this. It was christened Soften the Fck Up. A play on the often tossed around command to ‘harden the fuck up’ that Australian men have heard countless times over.
The aim was to make it easier for men to seek positive action than to suicide. We would do this by challenging conceptions of masculinity, encouraging men to re-tie their bonds of mateship, inspire hope and a feeling of connectedness amongst young men.
I had been through depression myself and was keen to help.
I started out with Soften the Fuck Up by offering my skills with writing, speaking, some design — whatever I could provide. It turned out however that my first contribution was to speak. To share my own story on the very first campaign video.
As someone excited to change the state of male mental health, I was actually surprised how confronting this was. I stood alone in a room with a videographer, sound guy and fellow co-founder and now true friend, Lee Crockford, and was asked questions about my experiences.
It was terrifying.
We launched the video to a room full of people. I remember watching myself on the projection that night and feeling the knots in my stomach as my soul, my weaknesses were laid bare. It was a strange, mixed feeling of pride and wanting to very efficiently find a small dark place to hide in.
I am still amazed at the comments I received that night. It was brave, apparently. And, I suppose it was, in a fashion.
But it shouldn’t have been. Talking about our weaknesses, our wounds, should be common.
I met more than half a dozen people that night who came up to me amidst the mingling crowd and thanked me — slipping in a taste of their own, similar experiences like an anecdotal canapé.
It was probably this, the reaction to the first video that spurred me on to continue with the project. For something so prevalent, so widespread and common-place, mental health and depression should not be such a silent, awkward subject. We die in the thousands by our own hands each year and hardly anybody talks about it.
It’s been an interesting three years with Soften the Fuck Up and overarching organisation, Spur Projects. We’ve launched several video campaigns, maintained an online presence of blogs and social media, hosted a day to raise awareness and funds through temporary silence and, surprisingly, won a few awards.
We’ve also met some truly inspiring people. And heard some incredible stories.
What I’ve Learnt
The past three years have been an incredible journey of emotion and education. I’ve met so many inspiring people, heard touching stories and learnt so, so much.
Enough in fact, to write several blogs about — which I might just do — but for now, here’s six things I’ve learnt about men and mental health.
- There is no such thing as a typical Aussie male. When we started this, I have to admit I expected to be talking to one group of men in particular. To ‘bloke-ify’ the language. I’ve since learnt that language is important yes, vitally important in this area, but it doesn’t need to be so complicated. Men vary, we are all unique human people. The best thing you can do is to speak honestly, truthfully and fucking straight forward. I’ve met men through this project that, on the surface, I judged as ‘blokey’ as a meat pie, but when I sat and listened to them — they weren’t blokes. They were just people.
- Men are good at talking — we just lack the feeling of permission to do so. So often growing up I heard the observation that men are bad at expressing themsleves — that we were seemingly born without a specific piece of our emotional puzzle that allowed us to talk about our feelings or fears. This is just not the case. Men are great talkers — great expressers of emotion and pain. However, men of Australia overwhelmingly lack a feeling of permission to talk. We need to change this — shift the culture to allow men to feel that talking, in their own way, is okay and expected and inherently masculine.
- Mental health is something everyone wants to talk about — but sometimes all they’re lacking is the opportunity. In fact, I expected a lot of resistance on the topic. I predicted people would not want to know what I was involved in, what Spur Projects and Soften the Fck Up was focused on. They would find it awkward. Instead… I’ve been overwhelmed with support. People want to help, the offers of support we’ve recieved as an organisation with no funding speaks to this. The silence that we sometimes hear around suicide and mental health is a lack of understanding how to talk about it. We need to change the culture around this to provide opportunities to engage in a topic that has, historically, been on the fringe of acceptable conversation.
- Batman is a better role model than Captain Kirk. I was a big Trekkie growing up, so don’t think I’m hating on James T. Kirk here. Not at all. However, Kirk rarely fails. Yes he has a team of people to help him on occasion, but Kirk always wins. He always gets the girl. He’s nigh-perfect. Batman fails. Almost constantly. But he picks up himself up, recovers, seeks help from sidekicks, Alfred and Gordon and comes back stronger. Batman is a role model that tells us — it’s okay to fail. Indeed, why do we fall? So we learn to pick ourselves up again.
- Change is a two-way conversation.I think when we first started, I expected a lot of our focus to be on those men going through a tough time. That was short sighted. You can educate men about the need to talk about their problems all day long, but if they don’t have an open and accepting environment around them… they just won’t. And we’ll continue to suffer in silence and kill ourselves. In order to affect change, we need to speak to both men who need help — and those that can help them.
- Sometimes the smallest things can make the biggest difference. I was asked a question the other day at the end of an interview on Spur, that I had never been asked before. It was — are you optimistic?This gave me serious pause. After all, our goal — to eliminate male suicide in Australia — is a lofty one. We are a small team of volunteers without government funding. So.. was I optimistic? Can we make a difference?
So I thought back over everything we’ve done, to a message we received from very early on in the process — a comment on one of our videos.
Am I optimistic? Absolutely.
A comment left by a viewer on our “Better if You’re Around” YouTube video.
We have a massive year planned. And a titantic task ahead of us. But together, as an organization with fantastic supporters, as a gender, as a culture and a nation — we can end suicide.
-William Smith Stubbs, February 22, 2014