On the face of it Zayn Malik leaving One Direction shouldn’t really resonate. At 34 years old, I am past fawning over boy bands. Even when I should have been gripped by Take That fever, I had a lot more affinity with the music of old codgers like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. However, there is something about Zayn that does appeal. In part, it is the fact that he’s that rarest of species: an Asian boy band member in the British mainstream – and he is pretty striking at that.
But it was his recent departure from One Direction which finally struck a chord. He laid bare the impact mental distress can have on a person. Having experienced significant mental ill-health myself, his honesty mattered. The workplace is a much cited cause of mental ill-health: you have to navigate difficult workplace relationships, over-bearing managers, not to mention being over burdened by work and enduring long hours.
And telling people at work is hard. Very hard. People who experience mental health problems are stigmatised in all sorts of ways: our reactions to stress are judged by much higher standards and it may be a barrier to progress. That is why self-disclosure is woefully low. The recent case of the German Wings pilot illustrates this well. Without knowing the full facts, the media has gleefully added to the stigma. The Daily Mail’s headline of “Why on earth was he allowed to fly” is particularly damning . Thankfully mental health charities like Time To Change have condemned it. This unhelpful rhetoric makes it that much harder for people to access support and our isolation and shame are compounded.
All of the above is magnified for someone in the public eye. Yes, Zayn and the other One Direction members may enjoy an extravagant lifestyle but at what price? Their actions are scrutinized; their talent questioned; any mishap like the odd spliff is looked on in horror. When Zayn Malik tweeted his support for Palestine, he was again under the microscope.
In light of that, it is refreshing that Zayn Malik, a man of colour, could speak out about the stress he is under and he recently said that he has felt more in control after leaving One Direction. He is a role model to many young people from many different backgrounds. Stigma and shame are some of the barriers that stop people accessing help. The ability to speak out is anything but weak and is often one of the most important steps. As those of us who experience the daily reality of depression, anxiety and other mental health problems know only too well: no one is immune.
The suicide rate for men is disproportionally higher than women. In a report by the Samaritans, male suicide rates are shown to be on average 3-5 times higher than female rates. Stigma is a huge barrier stopping people from speaking out and given societal pressures and patriarchal norms, men must abide by the “strong silent figure” model. Indeed, the strong man does not cry.
Many mental health charities have come out in support of Zayn’s candour. I salute him as a woman of colour for breaking some of the stereotypes. There is no one type of person that experiences mental distress, it can affect anyone and we are particularly vulnerable when our resilience is low and we are under acute pressure. Zayn Malik may have made it just a little bit easier for other young men to speak out and that is something we can all commend.
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Huma Munshi is a writer and poet. She is passionate about addressing inequality through her writing. She writes about feminism, tackling honour-based violence, forced marriage, mental illness, culture and activism. She is a regular contributor for the F-Word, Open Democracy and Time to Change. You can follow her on Twitter at @Huma101. She sees writing as a mechanism to overcome trauma and connect with others.