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Are we getting to the bottom of men's health?

At Living Stillness you will see us be more publically and outspoken about women’s health, the state of women’s health and how we are living as women. This is very important to us and the work that we do. Yet you may not know that we also work with men. We have regular male clients attend the clinic and benefit greatly from what we offer. We both have men in our lives and teenage sons, so are all too familiar with what men can go through in regards to their physical, mental and emotional health.

This post was sparked by the recent passing of prominent ex-AFL footballer. Reading the news coverage around his death, there has been a lot of mention about his struggles with depression and this having been something that has tormented him for years. This tragic loss sparked conversation about whether the AFL has properly faced and dealt with mental health issues. I would suggest that society as a whole hasn’t properly faced and dealt with mental health issues. However it highlights this game and others and how they may be affecting our boys and men.

As a mother of a 17 year old young man, I know boys. I know how they develop and how they are influenced by the world around them. I know their sensitivities and their strengths. In fact, I know that their sensitivity IS their strength. I know what they are affected by and what they can get caught up in. As a mother of a son who plays the game, I know football is one of the ways boys can deny and squash their sensitivity. I am not saying that football is to blame, not at all. It is simply one of the go-to’s that we have created (and there are many) that boys cultivate themselves away from their natural sensitivity.

I know I will not be popular for writing this because as a society we are heavily invested in games and sports like football that do the same thing. I’ve been on the side-lines, I’ve been in the change rooms and I’ve been at trainings. I’ve seen and heard a lot and probably too much yet not even nearly the half of it. The bottom line is boys are encouraged to harden up, to ‘get in there’, to put their body on the line and to push through, whatever it takes. And then we wonder why there is such a problem with mental health issues?

The fact is, boys are deeply sensitive. And they have been since the day they were born. They do not enjoy having their body being beaten up and thrown around on a field. But they will say they do because they have been conditioned to do so and they will ignore any suggestion from their body that it may not be a good idea. They see their AFL stars pushing their bodies to the absolute limits, pushing through injuries, getting injections and the like to get the job done. To win. So this is just what you do then right?

I’ll say it again. Boys are deeply sensitive. They were born this way. Is it possible that there is a very deep longing to come back to this, having left it and separated from this original quality to varying degrees and in varying ways since the time they were born?

Depression is a disconnection from one’s self. It is a feeling of emptiness and separation. A boy is born all-knowing of his sensitivity, equally to that of every girl. If we are struggling with depression or any feelings of underlying emptiness, which is very common when we all get honest, then we are simply void of that inner part of ourselves that naturally fulfills and enriches life. This is not something that we just show others on the outer surface, it is a deep connection to one’s self that is all pervasive and unshakeable. Yet this is impossible without an understanding and knowing of the depth of sensitivity and feeling that is innate within you.

There is much to be said about the ‘boys will be boys’ tagline that they so often get labelled with. A label that boxes, reduces and confirms boys to a place that is in serious retrograde to who they truly are.

On a physiological level, boys are wired differently to girls. When the male pathway takes hold in foetal development, testosterone kicks in. As we know testosterone is a growth hormone and both male and females require it in different amounts and ratios to other hormones.

Somewhere along the line, as we have picked up on testosterone and further understand its role within the body, we have ultimately used it against boys themselves…and we have also used it as an excuse for boy’s behaviours. This is where we have failed and this is where the narrative around boys needs to change.

Now I am not denying that testosterone has a part to play and that there are physical and emotional affects as a result of this. What I am saying, is that there is a sensitivity in boys that has not been embraced in the fullness it deserves and needs to be, where the understanding of hormones and behaviour can be founded in.

Let’s take a look at testosterone. Testosterone actually slows down brain development and studies have shown that because of this boys are in fact more susceptible to social stress or attachment trauma in utero and in the early years after birth, which is more likely to impact their ability to be able to manage stress.

So instead of ‘toughening up’ as they are so often conditioned, boys actually need physical and emotional nurturing. Their delicate hormonal system is not exempt from being directly responsive to the quality of how they are living and experiencing the world. The belief that boys are innately tougher than girls is completely false and only serves to feed an underlying sense of rejection…and feelings of emptiness. This is then confirmed by the world around them with no point of reference that takes them back to their sensitivity, but rather only points of reference that take them further away, serving to harden and to bury the hurt that comes with this.

I know, I know, but what about the comradery and ‘culture’ that the boys experience from being a part of the team? I don’t buy this one either. What kind of culture have we created and do we continue to champion where our men are in a such a state of disarray when it comes to mental health? And what about the drinking culture that is heavily attached to this and so many other sporting games? What will it take and how many lives will be lost before we seriously question the ‘culture’ and the ‘comradery’ in a sport that people love so dearly…but for what?

Until boys and men are given the agency to be honest about how they feel and to see that their tenderness, their depth of care and their sensitivity not only matters but is their ultimate and true strength, we are going nowhere.

Yes, I do support my son. I do so by reminding him that this game does not define who he is. And as with anything, he is so much more that what he does, how many goals he kicks or awards he wins. Whilst everyone around him will encourage him to keep going, I ask him how he is feeling. I encourage him to check in with his body and suggest that he doesn’t push through. I point out that when the coach tells them to put their body on the line that there will be consequences to this...and there always is. When the elation or conversely the disappointment sets in I remind him that this is a moment that is temporary. Again it does not define him.

Yes I congratulate him, I support him and I am at every game possible but I am there to support him to not lose himself in it all, to the best of his ability to maintain a connection with himself and to remain decent and respectful at the very least.

I am my son’s greatest supporter, for him to be who he naturally is, the tender and deeply caring young man that is felt by all. He may choose to play AFL and he may choose to do a lot of things that conflict with his sensitivity like so many do and that is for him to choose. I will not get in the way of this. But rather than jumping in and playing the game with him so to speak or cheering him along with the rest of the crowd, I will always be an ever-present reflection on the side-line that gives him a choice. And to let him see that true enrichment and fulfillment in life is cultivated from a relationship with the inner-most part of yourself. This is the only thing that will get you through because when the championing, the winning, the awards and the elation are all done and dusted, what else is there?

Yes you can do life, you can survive, you can have fun, you can win and you can seemingly have it all. But if you don’t have this one relationship, you will be forever searching to fill the void in order to not feel the emptiness that is inevitably lingering within. Maintaining this relationship will be your greatest achievement because life after this point and bringing this to all that you choose to do, is a life beyond what you could ever dream. No continual search for the next win, goal or source of elation needed because your life is full and enriched already.

So yes, the AFL and us all, need to look much more honestly and seriously at men’s health and start asking some better questions to come up with some more real, true and sustainable answers.

*Posted with permission from my son.

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