Zac Sielder is a clinical psychologist and men’s health researcher. Zac has spent the past several years working out how to better understand and respond to male distress and suicidality. He has worked with a diverse range of men and boys, from those with HIV+ to Indigenous youth in Darwin.
His focus is on using a strength-based approach to working with men and masculinity, and in his role as Director of Mental Health Training, is developing the world’s first online training program, Men in Mind, to upskill mental health clinicians, with the goal of keeping clients attending, motivated and improving throughout their treatment.
There’s a lot of talk that the time has finally come to shed our Covid lockdown skin and morph back into a fully realised version of ourselves that existed prior to March 2020.
The idea that we can just get back on the horse, let alone remember how to ride it, is one rife with problems when you start to consider the unique trajectories some have experienced over the past 18 months.
The group that jumps out at me as being most at risk of slipping through the cracks are young men. It just takes looking at the stark statistics that we had coming into the pandemic, with young women consistently outperforming young men across the board from health to education to employment outcomes, to see that a storm was on the horizon.
Now, without the right social scaffolding to support and transition young guys out of this period, we risk serious ramifications on their health and wellbeing and indeed the social fabric of our next generation.
To be clear, this is not a sob story for young guys who we know have plenty of privilege and opportunity on their side. It’s more a belief that rather than families, educators, health professionals, employers and the justice system continuing to bear the burden of these young men feeling unheard and misunderstood as they strive towards an unattainable and unrealistic standard of manhood, we can find ways to reach into their lives and open up lines of communication.
Without robust and meaningful social connections, emotion regulation skills and flexible ideas of what success actually looks like, these guys have struggled and it’s taking its toll.
All of us have had the rug pulled out from underneath us throughout the past 18 months, with plans for things such as travel, study or a career shake-up put on the backburner. Nonetheless, the expectations of success remain the same. Be productive, get that promotion, keep up your social connections, stay fit … the list goes on.
Most of us have failed to achieve what we set out to do, but with years in a career, or a university degree under our belt, we had a frame of reference to begin to understand that none of this is of our own doing and we’ve got the foundations to fall back on.
Many young men we’ve spoken to in our research at Movember have described feeling fundamentally unprepared to deal with life’s challenges, frustrated and forgotten as the pandemic has gone on. Throughout the pandemic, as our physical worlds shrunk and our online identity defined us, externally visible sources of success became even more rampant, and we need to now retrain and prioritise fostering an internal, self-determined life satisfaction.
In a global survey we conducted at Movember among almost 4000 young men aged 18-34, more than half (52 percent) of them noted that they’d missed out on chances they’ll never get back due to the pandemic. This isn’t a startling finding; in fact, it’s the narrative that underpins it that is cause for concern.
The reason that this feeling of underachievement is uniquely problematic for this generation of young men is the fact that many of them feel embarrassed, uncomfortable or emasculated by the thought of sharing these fears with friends or family.
This contributes to a culture of silence that means many young men fixate on their future, and whether they will be “a success”, without having a realistic blueprint of what actually reflects “success”.
Some 46 percent of our young men surveyed said they don’t feel prepared to deal with future problems they may face, and it’s because they’re facing them alone.
Our investigation uncovered a connection between young men’s real-life anxieties, and the binary definitions of masculine success reinforced across their lives – from sports fandoms and social media banter to gaming, education, work and dating. In short, the message many young guys are internalising is that if they aren’t the best at something, they are a failure.
It turns out that by surviving off a diet of success that is tied to external validation from your pay packet or promotion, you end up starving for purpose and meaning.
The same dialogue is running rampant in too many of these young guys’ minds, fuelled by the feeling that they are alone, that they are somehow unique in their sense of shame around not being able to live up to a standard of success that they see as the “bar”. In fact, they are the norm rather than the exception.
The making of complex, vulnerable, healthy and caring men must be purposeful and requires more voices speaking to the reality, the messy ups and downs, trial and error; the idea that simply trying to find your own path and figure things out is success in and of itself, as opposed to not trying. We need male role models coming forward and speaking not only to how they overcame challenges, but how they are still grappling with them, that the work never ends, but is necessary and enriching.
Young guys are starving for some openness, honesty and a bit more positivity in their lives.
That’s what Movember’s moustache signifies – it’s about doing things a little differently, getting itchy and pushing past the discomfort of looking like Freddie Mercury gone wrong to realise what we’re capable of as men. We need to add our health, our mates, our role as fathers, and realise that if we don’t all succeed as men together (by looking after ourselves), then none of us do.