Robert Webb: Prince Harry was right to speak about his mental health. No one should "man up"

The taboos surrounding mental health and talking therapy, particularly when it comes to men, remain very real to many of us.

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You think you’ve got something radical to say and then two princes of the realm go and agree with you. Terrific. Thanks, lads. I’ve never claimed to have much street cred but this is the limit. I’ve written a funny book about the harmful restrictions of masculinity and now, apparently, it comes with implicit royal approval. What shall I do next? A play about the ticket prices at Ascot? An outrageous podcast claiming that, as Kingsley Amis wrote, “nice things are nicer than nasty ones”?

As you may know, Prince Harry recently popped his head above the parapet to say that he’d spent 20 years burying it in the sand. Trying to deal with the death of his mother by ignoring it hadn’t really worked out for him, he said. A day or so later his brother agreed. The Duke of Cambridge warned of the dangers of keeping a “stiff upper lip” and said that his exposure to suicide through his work as an air ambulance pilot had been grimly enlightening. William correctly noted that in the UK suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45.

The reaction has been broadly positive and I’m glad. The men and women who can usually be relied on to tell other people to “man up” or “grow a pair” have shown a surprising ability to shut the hell up. As I write, I’m keeping an eye on Katie Hopkins’s Twitter account, but even the original ghost at the masculinity circle-jerk has gone quiet. The power of royalty, eh? When the message comes from an actor, the defenders of old gender roles have some kind of fit. When it comes from a couple of princes who also happen to be trained soldiers, The Man is given reason to pause. Good.

But the taboos surrounding mental health and talking therapy, particularly when it comes to men, remain very real to many of us. Why men in particular? Because of the rules that we were taught as boys, as opposed to the ones taught to girls. It begins in childhood, which is why I’ve approached the subject through a childhood memoir.

Many of us dragged these rules through adolescence and into a half-formed adulthood. It’s the one about emotional repression that causes most trouble. “Stop crying, man up, shrug it off, bottle it up, stop crying, man up, shrug it off, bottle it up . . .” over and over again: not always explicitly, not always unkindly, but present in the million little cues and signals of disapproval that boys receive when it looks like they’re about to express fear, pain, guilt, anxiety or grief.

We all have to suck it up temporarily when we’re in pain. I’m just suggesting that, for men, this should be an exception, not a rule, and certainly not a badge of honour. I don’t mind telling you that I’ve got several dogs in this fight. Like Harry, I lost my mother when I was young. Not at 12 but at 17, and not in an accident but to a fast-moving cancer. Still, that hurt, to put it mildly. And I was baffled by well-meaning people telling me I should talk about it. “Talk about what?” I wondered. “Talking won’t change anything. The facts are the facts. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll just get drunk, contemplate suicide regularly and treat my girlfriend like shit.”

It doesn’t need to be like this. Men can be fierce in defence of good principles without acting like psychopaths; men can be gentle without being thought of as quiche-wielding crybabies; men can argue with their partners stubbornly but respectfully; men can value work while equally valuing their home life and friendships; men can love women without lying to them; men can take responsibility for their own health without needing to be prompted; men can treat women as equals in the workplace without being seen as predatory; men can break out of the box of wonky stereotypes and false virtues; men can earn a genuine pride and self-respect; men can talk about their feelings. Men can be magnificent.

What we have to accept is that gender conditioning – being told how to act because of our sex – didn’t just happen to girls. It happened to boys, too, and it was another pack of lies. This system of thought is partly what gender critics refer to when they write about “the patriarchy”. It’s a term I avoid in the book because, y’know . . . I want people to read it. But it’s a set of mental and cultural habits which is out to restrict the full potential of men, women and those for whom these categories have always been a meaningless burden. I am a product of that environment, and resisting it – even noticing it – is easier said than done. I oppose it with a brain and personality formed by it. This might be why you don’t hear so much from male feminists: frankly, it’s a headfuck.

Any man can fall in love but if he wants to spend the rest of his life in partnership with one person and raise children, that’s going to take work. The feminist writer bell hooks unblushingly calls it “the work of love” and we should stop blushing, too. It’s a job for which, even in my mid-thirties, I found myself ill-equipped: the work of love, the work of companionship, the work of understanding, the work of humility and gentleness. These are skills that, in so many cases, we still teach boys to despise. We tell the gentle ones to get tough and the tough ones to get tougher. We do it in the absurd belief that we are preparing them for a difficult life. In fact, we hobble them. We leave them unprepared for adversity and almost entirely unprepared for love. They are our children. They deserve better. 

“How Not To Be a Boy” by Robert Webb will be published in August by Canongate and is available for pre-order

Robert Webb is a comedian, actor and writer. Alongside David Mitchell, he is one half of the double act Mitchell and Webb, best known for award-winning sitcom Peep Show.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble