James Jopling: Definition of maleness leaves many in limbo

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I recently went to an SPFL football match with my 11-year-old son. The two older gentleman behind us spoke rarely but always with reference to what was on the pitch, players from bygone eras or how long to wait until they went for a pie. I was left wondering, despite their decades of friendship, if they ever spoke of anything else?

Nowhere is the question of what it means to be a “real man” as central to national identity as Scotland. Whether it’s real or perceived, Scotland is dominated by an image of dour, macho, football-loving maleness – but how does that really play out for men at home, in their workplaces and communities?

What we need to understand is that the expectations and pressures that men in Scotland face today are contributing to a health crisis of which suicide is one of the biggest factors. Men in mid-life are particularly at risk. Life events such as divorce and redundancy combine with being part of the “buffer” generation, leaving men not sure whether to be like their older, more traditional, strong silent austere fathers or like their younger, more progressive sons.

Loss of industries and the changing face of the labour market has also had a particular impact on working-class men.

In Scotland, we also see high rates of alcoholism, violence, domestic abuse and suicide, with men 3.5 times more likely to take their own lives than women. While suicide rates in Scotland have decreased in recent years, they remain the highest in the UK, so there is no room for complacency.

Changing the culture to one where men feel able and permitted to talk about how they’re feeling has to start young. Urging a man in his 50s – such as those I sat near at the football – to open up and be in touch with his feelings goes against decades of social conditioning.

At Samaritans we work in schools throughout Scotland to support teachers to deliver our DEAL – Developing Emotional Awareness and Listening – programme, as well as supporting schools where there has been a suicide or other traumatic incident. We can work towards a Scotland where men at the football, in the pub or simply with friends can feel more secure and comfortable asking each other if they are OK, and sometimes answering with something other than “Fine.” It will benefit us all if we succeed.

If you, or anyone you know, needs someone to listen, you can talk to Samaritans. You can tell us anything, it always stays between us. We are available round the clock, every single day of the year, providing a safe place for anyone who is struggling to cope. Please call free on 116 123, email jo@samaritans.org, or visit www.samaritans.org to find details of the nearest branch.

James Jopling is executive director of Samaritans Scotland.