Image Credit: Canongate Books Ltd, 2015
Reasons To Stay Alive, is one of the most powerful and hard hitting books to have been written in recent years. Matt Haig’s nonfiction narrative about his own struggles with mental health is a story that is both personal and universal, spanning from the stigma around mental illness, to what it’s like to be a man struggling with isolating issues.
As far back as 1900 BC, ‘hysteria’ has been a woman’s disease. Called the ‘wandering womb’, it was associated with issues of the female psyche, which included symptoms of anxiety, shortness of breath, and things in a modern age we now associate with genuine mental illnesses. But the stigma of mental health issues being associated with women, and more socially acceptable for girls to talk about, is still attached to many of the debilitating illnesses that are affecting our generation in its entirety.
In Reasons To Stay Alive - which can be categorised as both a memoir and a self help manual - Haig draws on the ideas of the marginalisation of men within mental health. He entitles chapters with typical expressions we hear in the media surrounding men. In his chapter, ‘Boys Don’t Cry’, named after The Cure’s song, which has lyrics such as ‘hiding the tears in my eyes/ ‘cause boys don’t cry’, Haig hits us with statistic after statistic, proving that mental health is a humanitarian issue rather than a gendered problem.
‘In most places there is something about being a man that makes you more likely to kill yourself… why is depression more fatal if you are a man rather than a woman?’. This is a question that Haig poises the reader with. This incredibly poignant question comes after he states that, ‘twice as many women suffer from depression’; so why is it that for men, suicide is the highest killer for under thirty-fives?
This is a complex idea that Haig delves into throughout the duration of the narrative, drawing in different strands of facts, figures, and ideas to both sum up the detrimental effects of not discussing mental health, whilst also allowing an open conversation to begin as a result of his narrative.
This book is hard to read. The statements hurt, and in some instances, make you stop and put the book down. But, throughout the course of the action, Haig manages to instil a sense of hope within the reader. He splits the book into five sections: Falling, Landing, Rising, Living, Being, creating an arch that extends out of the lexis and into the real world. The messages and words of wisdom pour out of the book, and what’s left behind is a dogeared, underlined, highlighted codex, full of reality.
The great thing about Haig is that he understands, first hand, the marginalising effect that mental health issues have on men. It is all well and good for me to interpret the meaning of his words; I am a woman, and as already mentioned, historically, I am supposed to have ‘hysteria’. Women are expected to cry. We’re expected to feel down, and sad, and ‘weaker’. It is expected for us to need help. But what Haig’s narrative manages to do is not only show how important male inclusion is in this conversation, but also completely flip the expectations of mental health and prove what the reality is like.
He provides an insight into a male brain; how he originally felt, what caused him to feel like that, and links this to his manliness. He completely removes gender from the conversation by equalising women and men’s suffering, making it more about the words themselves; what can you do, yourself, to help someone who is struggling regardless of gender, race, or creed.
Returning to the chapter ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ seems appropriate. As mentioned, he enlists the use of facts, and structures the narrative in a way that draws the reader into this idea, before providing a comfort blanket of words. For him, mental health isn’t a ‘boy-girl-man-woman-young-old-black-white-gay-straight- rich-poor experience… It is simply something that happens to you.’ This notion that mental health isn’t separate and shouldn’t be marginalised from physical health, and furthermore, isn’t something that should be gendered is an idea that this book, and Haig himself, embodies. It is a concept that it is our duty as readers, and human beings, to be continuing our conversations about mental wellbeing, especially in such a trying time.