"Society is failing young men, especially black men", so Raphael, a seventeen year-old East Londoner, tells me.
Over the past month, I've been interviewing a number of boys and young men from various backgrounds, to try to find out whether British society truly supports them.
Having studied in a mixed gender school for the past twelve years, I have witnessed first-hand the mockery that some males receive from fellow students when expressing their emotions or views. There is still a stigma attached to male vulnerability, due to rigid gender roles and the societal expectations young men face.
One man I interviewed was Kris, a twenty-three-year-old social media manager. He contends that older men need to do more by using their platforms to speak up on key issues and their own experiences. He believes that this will encourage younger males to do the same. He also raised concern that the vast majority of social media campaigns are dedicated to women's issues, with little to no attention being given to men.
"Men, teens and boys have been kind of neglected. It's always been about including women, which is not a bad thing, but you need to highlight what men go through, with mental health and cancer."
Kris went on to explain that he thinks what women are doing is great but he would like his fellow men to do the same. Getting together and talking could make a surprising impact on one person's life.
"Britain provides enough opportunities for men, but they simply do not utilise them", says Michael, who disagrees with his best friend, Raphael. Michael believes it is the individual's responsibility to take action for their own lives. Raphael, meanwhile, tells me that many people are governed by societal expectations, rather than individual initiative – a problem that’s bolstered by a sense of lack of identity.
Raphael here referred to the fact that boys often lack fathers and male role models. Fathers may also be physically present, but mentally and emotionally absent. Consequently, boys can find themselves unsure of their identities, therefore making it easier for society to mould them.
After each interview, I asked the young men whether they were aware of any charities or companies that specialised in helping young men and boys. Unsurprisingly, none of them could name a single organisation. This in itself is an issue because there are actually a number of charities which aim to help young boys and men get the help and support they need. But because many of these charities lack the basic funding for appropriate advertising, it is difficult for them to reach their target audience and make themselves known.
On my quest to find a company which was on a mission to help young men and boys, I came across a small but impactful organisation: Lads Need Dads.
The aims of the not-for-profit company are to work alongside boys during the critical years of 11-15, providing them with specialist male mentors. A large part of their work is to ensure that boys are taught and encouraged to recognise and express their emotions. They provide opportunities to help boys grow, both mentally and physically, by engaging in the outdoors, teaching practical life-skills, and volunteering in the community. Lads Need Dads tries to raise awareness of the fact that fathers play fundamental roles in the emotional and mental well-being of boys.
Sonia, the company's founder, told me she felt inspired to establish the organisation after working in the field of criminal justice. She noticed many prisoners were men without fathers:
"Countless statistics document the fact that fatherless boys are far more likely to drop out of school, abuse alcohol and/or drugs, join gangs or go to prison than boys with fathers. A father’s absence can lead to aggression, anti-social behaviour, and low self-esteem."
She felt compelled to form a preventative, rather than a responsive, approach. By providing an early intervention, Lads Need Dads helps boys grow up to be the best they can be.
When the Lads Need Dads programme was piloted, 22% of the boys had intermittent contact with their fathers. By the end, 54% of the boys had contact with their fathers with relationships improving by 75%. 46% of the boys who took part moved up in sets at school. Attitudes to education improved, whilst the boys’ found they gained confidence, resilience, and greater emotional control. One boy who hadn’t seen his father since he was two, had re-engaged with him by the end of the programme.
Having heard the frustrations of young men, I can’t help but feel it would be encouraging to see more attention given to the issues affecting men today. We need to understand that many generations of men have been conditioned to think in a certain way - we cannot simply expect instant change. We also cannot place blame on the older generation for not articulating their own ordeals. Emotional repression is a perpetual cycle not easily broken. But, as the work of Lads Need Dads has demonstrated, early intervention in boys’ lives can help break the cycle.