By Joe Kemp, Senior Community Development Worker at Touchstone
When I grew up, I was taken to the pub by my loving father, often before watching Bradford City lose on a grim Saturday afternoon. I was fed on pints of weak ale shandy from the age of 15 and I loved it!
I was quickly indoctrinated into the world of men and pubs. I would spend a lot of my time just observing the way people behaved in the pub, knowing that this was how men are and that this is the world I must learn to fit into. But I knew the football/banter general blokey environment didn’t sit too well with me, although there were many things I appreciated about it. One impression that has stuck with me from these times was the image of the ‘lonely’ man with a pint sat at a table by himself, often staring into the distance and interacting very little with his environment. My gut reaction as a young lad was to feel sorry for this man, I would guess that he didn’t have any friends or that no one wanted to know him for some reason.
Fast forward 20 years and I am now that man, I choose at times to go to a pub and sit quietly, nurse a pint for an hour or so and stare blankly into the distance. What I didn’t know when I was 15 was that it wasn’t loneliness he was courting, but solitude. Solitude is found by choice, loneliness is something that is forced upon someone, by one’s own misgivings, circumstance or ill-fate.
I crave solitude and it is often my first choice, I also know that the line between solitude and loneliness is fine and blurred at times. I have many good friends and I choose to spend time in good company when I want to. I have a good level of self-confidence and I have over many years by trial and error developed the ability to reach out when I feel a lacking in my life. I know I’m lucky to have this skill, it's invaluable and for me and it was hard-won through many years of struggle.
I have observed that for many men this is a skill they are yet to develop. From my role in Community Development at West Yorkshire mental health and wellbeing charity Touchstone, I know that we have an epidemic of isolated men. They are everywhere, there are probably a few living on your street. You see them when you go to the shops or when you get on the bus, everyone knows one. Perhaps you don’t notice him, because his appearance blends perfectly into the dilapidated industrial background he inhabits. His clothes, like the buildings and once vibrant community, now look shoddy and unkempt. He lacks pride, purpose and meaning - you can see it in his eyes.
The solution to this problem are political, economic, and societal with all of these affecting one another. In the 1980s Thatcher’s statement that "There is no alternative" ushered in what might be called the age of the individual. We are defined by what we consume and by our contributions to GDP, not through our collective identity and shared endeavors. Not that this wasn’t the case prior to Thatcherism but at least what we had then was real community centered mainly around our places of work.
Globalization has benefited the world greatly, I have no beef with that. It’s lifted millions out of poverty and brought avocados to our shelves all year round regardless of the human and environmental cost. However, this system is clearly showing cracks, much like our use of social media, we don’t seem to notice the faults in a system until we have used it for a while. In the pit we had a canary to warn us when there was a problem. I firmly believe that today’s mental health crisis is our warning; our canary wilting.
The links between mental health and the economy are often over-looked, but they are clear to see when you look for them. So many of us are suffering mentally, the squeeze on living standards and stagnation of wages brings more than a big dollop of anxiety and depression for most of us. The inability of neoliberalism to address most if not all of the world’s current problems, and for our lonely man, it’s that he just doesn’t have a place in modern Britain. Technology hasn’t emancipated him, it’s marginalized him. There is a whole generation of marginalized and disenfranchised men, men that have grown up and are suited to working with their bodies, with their hands. They now have to navigate the modern-day world of work, which is inseparable from complex IT systems. Work should be fulfilling but sadly the world has evolved to offer little meaningful and achievable work for many of these men. A Green Industrial Revolution driven by a highly skilled workforce anyone?
We can’t and shouldn’t wait around for a true Social Democracy to emerge out of the rubble of 30+ years of Neo-Liberalism. The only workable solution we can currently affect is in grass-roots community led initiatives. In Leeds, there are many examples of this already working. (New-Wortley Community Centre, Gipton fire station, CATCH in Harehills) Community interest groups, community leaders, and the third sector are leading the way with innovative real-world solutions to local problems.
Data is great but statistics only paint half the picture, when you interact with people on a daily basis you get to hear from the horse’s mouth where the difficulties lie and what the solutions might be. Storytelling is important and is powerful. People and communities know the solutions to their own difficulties. Given the chance, the freedom, the economic space and provision to gather, we can create meaningful and long-lasting change. Whilst the cancerous economics of profit at all cost and cuts in all areas of public spending faulters, we can resist this kind of approach by re-politicizing the plight of poor mental health. But for the moment the best plaster we can apply to this societal wound is one of care, and by building workable systems that demonstrate how it could be
So, amongst all this lofty stuff our isolated and disenfranchised man needs help. He needs opportunity and encouragement, to start a new, and to transform on his own terms. We know the importance of inter-generational mingling, especially for men. Many young men need positive role models and many older men relish the opportunity to pass on life skills, wisdom and their calm steadfast outlook. This really works… it’s wholesome and magical to see that kind of brotherhood in action. That’s it, that’s what men really need — brotherhood, kinship, shoulder to shoulder comradeship – ‘the company and friendship of others with common aims’.
Men can move mountains when they work together.