Boys Should Cry
Being 'tough' can hurt you more in the long run.
A few years ago, I was a graduate in the public service in Canberra, Australia. I was surrounded by new friends with similar interests. We were working on high profile policy issues like counter-terrorism and international security.
It was a long way from where I grew up, one of those small Aussie country towns that people speak of in dismissive terms. It was a five to six hour drive from Sydney - an old cattle farming area with a population a bit under thirty thousand. It was the kind of place that if you mentioned it to anyone, people would often say ‘Oh yeah - I’ve been through there on the way to somewhere else.’
When I moved out, I couldn’t help feeling out of place. After all, my parents never finished high school. My father was a motor mechanic; my mother stayed at home to raise three children. We lived on a farm, in a house made from timber that my Dad had cut on our property; a true log cabin.
I was reluctant to share much about myself because my background seemed a little prosaic by comparison with a lot of my colleagues.
One of these colleagues was Andrew. He was an intelligent and confident young man who organised a hilarious skit satirising politicians and bureaucrats at the office Christmas party.
Andrew and I worked in the same section for a while. We’d talk in the coffee line-up in the morning. But his upbringing seemed so different to mine, and so I never really tried to connect with him.
One day, I returned from a short holiday and opened my emails. And that’s when I found out that Andrew had taken his own life.
Like a lot of Andrew’s colleagues and friends, I didn't realise things had gotten so bad for him. And ever since that event, I’ve wondered what has stopped me from sharing my story with Andrew and other people I meet.
I’m aware now it’s partly to do with the stigma around men sharing about their health. Anything surrounding mental health and mental wellbeing has a particularly strong hold over us men, including in Australia.
You might be surprised to learn that self-harm is now the leading cause of death for Australians aged between fifteen and forty-four. While the number of Australian women taking their own lives is increasing, however, the statistics also show that men died three times more from self-harm in 2015.
In Indonesia, mental health is also a taboo topic. If you mention to someone that you have a friend or family member who took their life, they might ask if they were ‘gila’ or ‘crazy’. Suicide and mental health remain highly stigmatised here too.
I’m pleased to see that leaders from all political persuasions are talking about it in my home country.
On the left-side of Australian politics, Indigenous politician and Senator Pat Dodson has called for action in addressing suicide in Indigenous communities; communities like those in the Kimberly in Western Australia, where the rate of suicide is seven times the national average, and is thought to be amongst the highest in the world.
Former conservative MP Andrew Robb revealed the challenge of dealing with depression, and how it affected his day-to-day work as Trade Minister. Greens Senator Scott Ludlam explained that he is taking leave to get treatment for his long-standing depression and anxiety.
Yet it remains unusual for your average bloke (read: “real” Aussie men) to talk about mental health. From childhood, it’s impressed on men and boys that they must ‘deal with it’ and appear ‘tough’. There’s pressure on young men to be strong, like their fathers.
When my own father passed away, one of the remarks people made was that he was always so strong – and by implication, how perplexing some of his actions seemed to them.
Yet we’re not so strong on our own. We can’t be. That is one reason I decided to share my story about seeking help for a mental health issue.
Recently I started finding it difficult to get to sleep, and even when I could sleep, I had recurring dreams about my childhood home.
One day, a few weeks after my sixteenth birthday, my father had disappeared. I had a disjointed phone conversation with him in the morning, and when I arrived home he wasn't there. I called everyone I knew, then went out to look for him.
It was dusk and I walked through the paddocks and up into the forest along an old logging trail. Just as it was getting dark, my eyes caught a white flash of colour through the trees. As I approached I realised it was my father, slumped against a log.
He had shot himself.
It was a gruesome scene. Next to him was a farewell note scrawled with a piece of charcoal. My memories of that scene still haunt me.
At his funeral, I held back tears. That made me feel strong. After all, it wouldn't be right to break down in front of everyone; they’d think I was weak. Boys cry. Men don’t cry.
Suicide was taboo. Adults around us seemed unsure of what to say. Awkward looks and silence were the norm. Dad’s brother collected some machinery we'd stored for him and never tried to contact us again.
I had to grow up fast. After school, I'd come home, round up cattle that had broken into my neighbour’s yard, fix fences, and do other chores around the farm. After that, I’d try to get on with preparation for my senior school exams.
I was lucky that my teachers and school principal in Kempsey were looking out for me. They kept me in school when I was ready to drop out.
Two years later, my mother sold our farm. I moved to Sydney to attend university. Our family was completely uprooted by the loss of my father.
I found a kind of normality, and even strength, from what I’d been through. I was a good problem-solver and stayed cool in a crisis; skills I had used in coping with our family’s breakdown.
I completed university and was accepted into a graduate program in a government department. My self-confidence grew, and a few years later I was posted overseas, to Jakarta where I now live.
Still, I never spoke to anyone about my background. It felt like something embarrassing to share with people who appeared on the surface to have such ‘normal’ lives.
The anniversary of my father's death became more difficult each year. I began having disconcerting flashbacks and lost sleep and energy. Sometimes I was tempted to give up and return home.
When I sat in my doctor’s office, I talked about any other ailment. I had told myself for so long I’d seen the worst and survived. It seemed impossible to say the words ‘there’s something else I need to talk to you about.’
When I did find those words, my doctor and I talked for over an hour. She put me in touch with a psychologist, and after years of pretending to myself that I could get by on my own, I began treatment. The simple step of seeking help boosted my mood. It became easier after that first conversation.
So many things hold us back from talking about mental health. It’s awkward. We’re afraid of opinions, gossip, and judgment; we want to safeguard our image for the next promotion, or we’re trying to remain stoic because we’re worried about what the neighbours might say.
But that silence is the real killer. When we fail to reach out to one another, our friends, our loved ones, and our own selves are at their most vulnerable. We must continue to speak out. By doing so we might just offer someone – just like my friend Andrew - a path to help instead of harm.
Even now I occasionally tell myself ‘this isn’t an issue - just toughen up and deal with it on your own’.
Sometimes I can't help but wonder if that's what my father, and other people we’ve lost, told themselves their whole lives.
If you or anyone you know needs help please contact the helplines in your residential country that can be found in this directory.
Murray O'Hanlon is an officer with Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. He studied at Kempsey High School, graduating in 2001, and graduated from the University of New South Wales in 2006. This article benefited from support from colleagues and friends at DFAT and the ABC. You can find him on instagram and twitter.