International Men’s Day — [Mr Adrian Bailey in the Chair]

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 3:42 pm on 29th November 2018.

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Photo of Colleen Fletcher Colleen Fletcher Opposition Whip (Commons) 3:42 pm, 29th November 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I commend Philip Davies for securing the debate. He has raised many issues, each of which is probably worthy of long debate. It is difficult in a debate like this one, which is quite short, to have the conversations that we really want to have.

I am feminist, and I have two sons. They have brought issues to me while growing up, and we have always talked about equality. We are going back a generation—my sons are in their early 40s. I remember one coming home from school and saying to me, “It’s not fair—the girls have a special room where they can go at lunchtime, and boys don’t have one.” Girls who had their period or were not feeling well were allowed to go to that room and have some quiet time, which I tried to explain to my sons. Should schoolchildren—whether boys or girls—not feel well, they should have a room where they can sit down quietly. That is just sensible.

We have to be careful about our language and ensure that people who have an audience, such as those in the media, think about what they are saying. Another issue was picked up just last year. My son and I were listening to the radio—something was going on in Coventry—and the presenter commented on some men’s “wonderful six-packs”. My son was appalled and said, “What if that was a man on there, talking about what big breasts someone had?” We have to be careful about the language that we use, especially in the media and in newspapers, although we cannot often control what happens there, and people will always read what they want to.

International Men’s Day is designed to highlight some extremely important issues—none more so than men’s mental health and tackling male suicide. I want to focus on those issues, and this debate gives me the opportunity to do so. I will always take the opportunity to talk about it.

Last year, suicide rates among men in the UK were at their lowest for more than 30 years. While that is, of course, extremely encouraging, we must not overlook the underlying statistics, which show that there were 5,821 suicides in the UK last year. Of those, 4,383 were male suicides, which means that more than three quarters of people who took their own lives were men—the rate was 15.5 suicides per 100,000 men. One such death is one too many. Those statistics lay bare the scale of the crisis in men’s mental health, and they also highlight how essential it is for us to continue to target expertise and resources at understanding the causes of male suicide and trying to prevent it.

Why is suicide such a highly gendered occurrence? We know that mental health issues can affect anyone and are caused by a number of factors, including bereavement, unemployment, finance and debt issues, family and relationship problems—as has been said already—social isolation, low self-esteem, drug and alcohol issues, and many other personal factors. It is not that men are necessarily more susceptible to these mental health triggers; societal expectations have shaped men’s behaviour in how they deal with—or, more accurately, how they fail to deal with—their emotions, feelings and wellbeing when confronted by them.

The malign influence of masculine conditioning—it shapes the way men are brought up to behave and the roles, traits and behaviours that society expects of them—demands that rather than talk about their emotions and how they feel in times of difficulty or crisis, men should instead be silent, manly and strong. That social and emotional disconnectedness simply adds to men’s vulnerability and contributes to a higher rate of suicide across the male population.

How do we tackle this problem? Part of the answer is to reduce the stigma around men’s mental health and to encourage men to open up and seek help when they are struggling or feeling in despair. In Coventry, the encouragement and the conversations are being initiated by the award-winning mental health awareness and suicide prevention campaign, “It Takes Balls to Talk”. It is the brainchild of mental health nurse Alex Cotton, who is my constituent.

The campaign is a public information programme targeted at male-dominated sporting venues across Coventry and Warwickshire, which uses sporting themes to raise awareness of mental health support services and seeks to reduce male suicide by encouraging men to talk about their feelings. Since its launch more than two years ago, “It Takes Balls to Talk” has played a vital role in breaking down the barriers that prevent men from initiating conversations about their mental health and wellbeing, and from positively engaging with mental health services in my local area. Such targeted initiatives promote positive mental health and make a lasting difference. That is why I am extremely proud of what the campaign has achieved so far and of the work it does across my city and Warwickshire. It is why I support it wholeheartedly.

I want to conclude by encouraging any men affected by a mental health issue not to bottle it up. Those are wise words for anyone. Talk to a friend, a colleague or a family member. Contact Mind, the Samaritans or “It Takes Balls to Talk”. They need to know that there are always people and organisations out there who will listen and offer practical help, advice and support. After all, you know what they say—it has just been said: a problem shared is a problem halved.