Sandy was 18 when he left for Australia to become a windsurfing instructor. Despite having a great time, he ended up returning to the UK to start a full-time job in a senior role because felt pressured to take his life seriously.
“I really didn’t want to live anymore,” he says. “Friends from home bought houses and began to ‘build a life’, so I felt I needed to come back to do something substantial.”
Now 29, Sandy says that he hit his lowest point two years ago. He felt so unfulfilled that he quit his job again within just a few years of moving back home.
What Sandy went through isn’t uncommon. In fact, many millennials have experienced a similar “quarter-life crisis”. A 2017 LinkedIn study found that 72 percent of young Brits report that they have suffered such a crisis, and 32.4 percent would say they are currently having one. A period of intense soul-searching that often occurs between the mid-twenties and early thirties, these crises often involve a reassessment of career and life choices, and sometimes unhealthy comparison with friends.
While the Linkedin study reveals that women are more likely to hit a quarter-life crisis, men accounted for about three-quarters of suicide deaths registered in 2019, according to data from the the Office for National Statistics. This suggests that young men may be suffering from feelings of inadequacy more than we realise.
Freddie, 26, says he had a quarter-life crisis in his early twenties that led to a mental health breakdown, followed by suicidal thoughts and an episode of psychosis before he received therapy. “It involved constantly contemplating who I was as a person, self-hatred and existential questions about myself,” he says.
Freddie’s mental health only got worse during the pandemic. Shortly into the first lockdown, after experiencing mild symptoms of COVID-19 while at home, he had a major panic attack.
“I had visions of death, being in a hospital on my own without my family, wondering if my condition would become worse in a hospital prone to infection,” he says.
According to Nathaniel Oke, clinical psychotherapist, coronavirus has brought mortality into sharp focus for some young men. “Statistics show that the younger generation have inherited a bad deal when it comes to economic opportunities, hence, men feel less powerful, less hopeful,” he says.
A life crisis occurs when we question the meaning of life and if we have truly fulfilled our expectations. Are we where we thought we would be, based on our surrounding influence? Oke points towards a major problem in relation to these questions – society’s idea of masculinity and what it means to be a man.
For 37-year-old Nana, his quarter-life crisis was also sparked by feelings of shame. “Growing up as a disabled Islamic black man in Britain, I used to feel shame,” he says, “Black males seem to go through a quarter-life crisis from as early as 24 years of age because African parents start to compare their children with other people within their social circle to elevate their status.”
Indeed, clinical psychotherapist Hilda Burke notes that the age 25 seems to have joined the ranks of milestone birthdays like 18, 21 or 30. Milestone ages are significant as we have collectively and culturally endowed them with certain meanings, and determined life achievements that we should have accomplished by those ages.
“When we feel we ‘should’ have done specific things or achieved certain goals by those ages is when anxiety can arise,” Burke says.
For a lot of young men, social media can also have a negative impact on mental health. Sandy often struggles when comparing himself with people he went to school with, based on the achievements he sees through his screen.
“I think as men, we’re all just trying to find our way and make something of ourselves,” he says. “But I’m not sure we all actually want to do that – we just feel like we have to, to be accepted by our friends and family as a ‘success.’”
And since modern dating has shifted online, some men now feel pressure to work out regularly to achieve an archetypal standard of physical perfection.
“Young men feel they have to look good enough to attract a partner and keep them,” says Freddie. “Physical appearance is becoming more important than ever before, otherwise you will literally be swiped left and discarded. That's a huge fear for a lot of millennial men now.”
The first step to overcoming such feelings is acknowledging them and talking about it, according to Oke. He says: “Define what masculinity means for you. Challenge that definition on how realistic and practical it is.”
Oke also suggests seeking help through therapy or a group of non-judgemental friends that will not deride or ridicule your vulnerabilities and insecurities. However, for a lot of men, the latter seems difficult to find. For this very reason, both Freddie and Sandy created their own podcasts on male mental health as a resource for men to share their feelings openly. For people who cannot afford therapy, Oke hosts The Therapy Hour, a weekly webinar with fellow psychologists and mental health platforms that offers a safe space for men to seek help.
For Nana, the pandemic has helped him work through his quarter-life crisis by realising that he needn’t be ashamed of his identity. He can now see himself as an advocate for the disabled community.
“I have realised my purpose – which is to give a voice to the mental health of disabled men especially during lockdown and COVID-19 restrictions,” he says.