Headmaster’s Blog 17.11.17

Movember: breaking the culture of silence

Over the past fortnight, parents may have been wondering if the Grammar School’s standards are lapsing. Why have senior boys stopped shaving? Why is the Headmaster tolerating beards being worn in the Sixth Form? For several years now, LGS has supported Movember, the global charity that aims to raise awareness of illnesses that affect men, and which contribute to men’s life expectancy lagging behind that of women. As a boys’ school, we feel that it is important that we make boys confront the silence that leads to men dying as they fail to recognize the symptoms of testicular or prostate cancer or, for that matter, poor mental health. Sixth Formers are allowed, upon a donation to Movember, to acquire a ‘beard licence’ for the month, so that awareness and funds are raised for this very worthwhile cause.

On Thursday morning, a group of Year 13 boys addressed school assembly on this issue, and all the boys in the school were given a fake moustache that may have greeted you when your son returned home that evening! I like to give boys the opportunity to address assembly if they have something that they wish to share with the school. The ability to speak in public and to project oneself is an important life skill and once a boy has spoken to over 1000 people in the Hodson Hall, smaller audiences will forever seem less intimidating. On Thursday, 7 boys including the Head Boy and his Deputies, explained the school’s motivation in choosing to support Movember each year.

The general premise was a simple one: that men are being killed by ‘silence’. It’s often said that men don’t like to go to the doctor’s when they have a health problem. Even if men are worried about a lump or a pain that they notice daily, we can go into denial, and hope that it will just get better of its own accord. The point that the assembly wanted to ram home to the school was that we need to be prepared to seek help when our health, physical or mental, is not quite as we wish it to be. Firstly, there is prostate cancer. Although this is an illness that tends to affect middle-aged men rather than youngsters, the boys were encouraged to discuss this with their fathers, to ensure that they would be inclined to act on a concern rather than ignore it. This is vital because survival rates are extremely high as long as the disease is caught early.

Testicular cancer was given more attention, as this can affect very young men. Indeed, it is the most common form of cancer in men below the age of 40. Again, the message was that boys must not be embarrassed to talk about this part of the body (“we’ve all got them” was the Deputy Head Boy’s memorable phrase, completely ignoring the female teachers present), but to get used to check themselves for lumps and discomfort. It was emphasized that there must be no embarrassment in bringing a concern to the doctor; doctors are dealing with all parts of the body on a regular basis and will not be remotely surprised to be asked to look at a man’s testicles.

The most difficult subject addressed was inevitably that of suicide. In this case, the dangerous ‘silence’ referred to the male habit of not articulating our emotions. It is a tragic truth that suicide is the biggest killer of men below the age of 45: men are three times more likely to kill themselves than women. Boys were told that one of the most unhelpful phrases in our language is “man up”. From an early age, if we’re not careful, parents can encourage their sons to bottle up their emotions and to never show weakness. “Don’t be ashamed of crying” was our speaker’s message, because we need to have the reflex to admit to others when the ups and downs of life are getting too much for us. Thinking that we must find all the answers to our disappointments, our conflicts and our insecurities on our own is what contributes to poor mental health. Instead, we must not be afraid to seek help and to express how we feel, whether to a friend, a parent or a professional. Boys were reminded of the support available to them at school: their tutor and Head of Year; the Welfare prefects; and the Counsellor and School Chaplain. Importantly, boys of all ages were challenged to break the silence in asking their friends how they are. When they notice that a friend is withdrawn or visibly upset, they must not ignore it, but encourage him to put words to his feelings as the start of a process of getting better.

Thank you to Nathan, Billy, Jake, Ben, Adil, Nikhil and Lawrence for their assembly. If you would like more information about this important charity, please consult­