Last week, in the small town where I live, there was a bit of an event. Hundreds of people turned up to see the unveiling of a statue. The sculpture depicts a miner and his young son in around the 1840s and is a tribute to the hard life and sacrifice made by the men and women who built our coal mining community, worked in the collieries and also those who tragically died in them. It was commissioned by the group Culture for Hetton, and created by local sculptor Ray Lonsdale.
The sculpture is called 'Da said "Men don't cry" '
The boy is about to start his working life.
Having now read up on the local history of children in mines I have been shocked to find that it was common place to find boys of six to eight years old employed as 'Hurriers'. They were strapped into harnesses and pulled coal tubs for over a mile underground and back full of coal many times over a 12 hour shift. There were even cases of children as young as three or four employed to help push the tubs or given the responsibility of opening and shutting the trapdoors to allow the tubs through or to provide essential ventilation. Is it any wonder so many died? It was following one such disaster that Queen Victoria became aware of the frequent loss of life, including high numbers of children. She soon passed the Children in Mines Act of 1842 which prohibited under 10's working underground. I guess it was a start.
But what about the title of the sculpture?
'Da said "Men don't cry."
This, for me, is more poignant. This message has lingered on long past the closing of the last mines.
"Men don't cry"
We still hear it said today and we are still seeing and feeling the effects of these words.
What happens when we tell boys that 'men don't cry'?
We are teaching them that their feelings don't matter. That they must been seen to be tough, strong, hard, a 'real man'. It teaches them to suppress their emotions, bottle it up, hide it, don't allow it to surface. Then what? It's got to come out somehow and when it does it's going to look way worse than crying ever did!
The Man Up campaign was created to highlight and explore the complex relationship between masculinity and suicide, whilst encouraging men to question socially imposed rules about what it means to be a man. The documentary series encourages men to open up, express difficult emotions and seek help.
Around the world, one man will take his own life every minute of every day (Movember Foundation 2016). In the UK alone we lose an average of twelve men a day to suicide (ONS 2017). These figures are just devastating to read.
Pent up stress and feelings of overwhelm can lead to both physical and emotional problems - Heart, liver, and kidney disease and emotional disorders including depression, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, feelings of suicide and much more. It is also common to see stress being dealt with in unhealthy ways such as drinking alcohol to excess and drug use to numb the pain, and episodes of explosive violence as emotions erupt.
So what should we be saying instead?
First we need to recognise that crying is a natural and appropriate response and that there are many reasons why both children and adults might cry, some physical and some emotional and all equally valid.
The we need to talk and we need to listen.
We need to work out the reason for the crying and say it out loud. This is particularly important for children as naming their feelings gives them the words to explain how they feel, it builds their emotional literacy.
We need to validate their feelings and tell them that it is ok to feel sad, frustrated, scared, etc. Listening to our children and accepting their emotions leads to emotionally healthy and resilient adults who deal with stress and overwhelm in healthier ways.
I'm not sure if what I have taken from this work of art is what was originally intended, but isn't that the great thing about art? That it is subjective and can be interpreted however you wish? I don't think I have ever been moved in this way by art before.
I'm glad that things have moved on.
I'm glad that we no longer send our children out to work, never mind down a mine.
And I'm glad that attitudes to mental health, mens in particular, are changing too.
Students from local schools have buried time capsules at the base of the statue to be opened in 2069. I wonder how much our world will have changed again in 50 years time?