Men’s Health Week 2019: How to be there for men when they can’t ask for help
This year, The Men’s Health Forum are dedicating Men’s Health Week to the mental health aspects of men’s health, which got me thinking about the real lack of discussion I see on men’s health in general.
While fantastic projects like those by the Men’s Health Forum raise awareness around mental health problems specific to men, there has been a real cultural lack of discussion about men’s health, with language around men who are struggling to cope often very negative. If men begin to drink too much, become despondent, quiet or moody, or argue more, the correct response is to ask if they are OK. More likely though, men will be described as moody, aggressive, angry, out of control, a mess, a loser – this language is only going to make the men it refers to feel even worse about themselves and less likely to open up.
What are the cultural perceptions?
There is another issue in that we celebrate negative aspects of masculinity rather than intervening. Open any men’s magazine or watch any film aimed at men, and these traits are apparent. A real man, we are informed, is one who is a hard-drinking, fighting cowboy who stays silent about what bothers him, only expressing himself by shooting his rival. He is the James Bond type, working long hours before drinking (again), gambling and never finding a meaningful relationship. He’s the soldier on the battlefield struggling to hold it all together, he’s the absent father, entirely to blame for a broken relationship, the boxer with nothing left and he has to do all this while being charming, in great shape and without support.
This image needs to change. Because men, well, they’re people too; not just action heroes.
Realistically, we all go through stressful periods in life, whether that’s the result of work stress, family life, financial pressure, health concerns or something else. However, very few men are open to discussing these subjects honestly and in detail, except perhaps after a few beers – products marketed predominantly at men, but which can lead to violent outbursts, something seen as a masculine trait.
The idea of men as inherently aggressive or violent is likely to cause low self-esteem in men, who feel saying or doing the wrong thing may lead to unwarranted stigma. When anxious about saying the wrong thing, men who actually are having struggles with anger issues are less likely to open up when they need help the most. The image of men needs to change so that they can express what they are going through safely.
Where does this lead?
The sad irony is that men, perhaps as they can’t discuss anger openly, commit 86% of violent crime and are twice as likely to be a victim of violent crime. Outbursts of this kind are a possible indicator of mental health issues boiling over, something which does not receive the attention it deserves.
As socially unacceptable as anger is, in the society of ‘a stiff upper-lip’, anger is still seen by men as a more socially acceptable response than crying or talking, as these are seen as feminine traits and therefore even less socially acceptable than anger. This is of deep concern.
Aggression and anger (luckily) do not always manifest themselves as violence. Clenched fists, pacing, and swearing are all pressure valves for letting repressed emotions of fear, sadness and disappointment hiss out in a less unacceptable manner.
While these actions may go no further, they could be a strong indicator of an imminent explosion, or unexplained implosion – in too many cases suicide is a high risk.
In 2016 men represented 76% of all suicides which is a shockingly high number, especially when considering that 87% of rough sleepers are men. It seems that those who fall under the radar and do not take their own lives may be in danger of losing their lives in other ways.
Men are suppressing their emotions
Proof that men struggle to speak about their problems is even evident through word choices. A study by NSPA showed that men expressing their emotions found descriptions like feeling ‘angry’, ‘a bit weird’ and ‘emotional’ as inaccurate or having the wrong connotations. The terms the men who were surveyed preferred to use to describe themselves were:
- Not 100%
- (Under) Pressure
These terms are less specific and slightly non-committal, so the perception may be that men using these terms are likely to subtly suggest they need support, rather than screaming out that things are close to breaking point – a point at which a lot of damage may have already been done.
Again, the inability to convey mental health issues effectively may be a factor in suicide, with 6,122 UK men taking their lives in 2014 for example. Tragically, one man every two hours will needlessly disappear from the world, which needs to stop.
The other ingredient for poor communication over men’s mental health is the unwillingness to speak up when things are bad.
A 2016 study for the Men’s Health Forum explained that ‘34% of men said they would be embarrassed or ashamed to take time off work for mental health concerns such as anxiety or depression compared to 13% for a physical injury’.
This statistic is very telling and indicates that mental health is viewed differently than physical health, and men are aware of a stigma which may or may not exist within their place of work.
Jim Pollard from the Men’s Health Forum points out ‘the language we use needs to put the individual in control.’ This is because macho norms can mean men will not speak up if they fear judgement.
Men also react poorly to being told what to do for the same reason. As a result, messages like ‘don’t do that!’ over smoking, drinking, diet or wellbeing have had limited effectiveness with men, so there is no reason to think this approach would work differently for mental health issues.
Further proof of this is that ‘men are three times as likely to report frequent drug use and nearly three times more likely to become alcohol dependant than women. These are often solitary acts and at the extreme end of these abuses are the drug and alcohol dependent rough sleepers we’ve all encountered. These who are usually men – perhaps men who couldn’t ask for help before things got too bad.
Why men hide their feelings
Time to Change have previously taken to Twitter to get comments from the public about mental health issues which men experience.
Many of the issues we have looked at so far were reiterated here in a much larger, if more general method of research.
When asked what might make opening up about mental illness difficult for men, people said:
‘’People often don’t think depression is a real illness. That goes for both genders though.’’
Which backs up the statistics around men not reporting mental illness as often as physical problems.
‘’Being judged by other men. All about ego and stigma. End of the day, illness can strike anyone.’’
Echoing the idea of a macho culture and showing men feel judged, even though ‘’illness can strike anyone’’.
‘’Lots of people are frightened by mental illness. Perhaps some men don’t want to be seen as scary monsters.’’
This is an interesting point, as it shows a stigma which the research has not truly discussed, which is male aggression, often the way men express their loss of control.
Men’s mental health and how to spot problems
We’ve seen men are at high-risk for mental health issues, substance abuse and suicide, and yet are much less likely to ask for help.
If you think you may be struggling with your mental health or there’s a man out there who you think needs assistance, look out for these warning signs, as advised by the National Institute of Mental Health:
- Anger, irritability or aggressiveness.
- Noticeable changes in mood, energy level, or appetite.
- Difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much.
- Difficulty concentrating, feeling restless, or on edge.
- Increased worry or feeling stressed.
- A need for alcohol or drugs.
- Sadness or hopelessness.
- Suicidal thoughts.
- Feeling flat or having trouble feeling positive emotions.
- Engaging in high-risk activities.
- Ongoing headaches, digestive issues, or pain.
- Obsessive thinking or compulsive behaviour.
- Thoughts or behaviours that interfere with work, family, or social life.
- Unusual thinking or behaviours that concern other people.
If these characteristics seem familiar, it’s crucial that you or the men you care about speak to the right people. There is a list of resources at the bottom of the page and a downloadable guide with some further advice on self-care.
What to do now
Going through mental health problems is hard for everyone. For men it can feel like talking is not an option and that it’s better to bottle everything up and look after our friends and families first, but we need to look after ourselves as well. Opening up and talking or admitting we can’t cope doesn’t feel like ‘the manly thing to do’, but that needs to change if we want to avoid self-destructive behaviours in men. As men, if we don’t learn to accept and address our mental health struggles, then we stand to lose everything.
Falling behind at work and losing our jobs. Losing our homes and possessions as a result, losing our partners, losing our tempers…if we don’t lose the inability to have a conversation, we stand to lose everything that matters.
Too many men are suffering in silence, with too many disappearing for good because they couldn’t ask for help. As men, I feel we are strong enough to accept we are sometimes weak, and we can beat our problems through talking to others and being there for friends when they struggle too.
Don’t give up, because if you are still surviving against the odds, then getting help means you will become unstoppable. You’ll become happy too, that’s what really counts. Here are some good resources to get started or for you or any men you know:
- NHS: This useful site gives practical advice on dealing with mental health difficulties, including an overview, how to get advice and how to treat your problems, as well as some insightful stories from people who have struggled themselves. - https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/
- Mind #1: This page encourages more men to speak up about mental health, with really good, in-depth advice. - https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/your-stories/man-up-getting-more-men-in-mental-health/#.XNLn6o5KiUk
- Mind #2: Contact details and a breakdown of the Mind ‘Infolines’. Mind are one of the best organisations for mental health assistance and their helpline is good place to go if things are too much. - https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/helplines/
- Movember: Known more for charity fundraising than articles, the charity actually offer some of the most relevant articles, as they are one of the few mental health organisations focussing purely on men. This site helps men to learn the benefits of talking more, offers a lot of stories from other men and includes podcasts and practical resources for free - https://uk.movember.com/mens-health/mental-health
Some further resources from MHR:
A useful video guide to supporting men from the recent DisruptHR event.