Men and mental wellbeing: why the secrecy?

What do Stormzy, Jonny Wilkinson and Prince Harry all have in common? It’s not a trick question: they’ve all spoken out publicly about their own struggles with mental health.

Together, they show that anyone’s mental wellbeing can suffer, and it doesn’t discriminate over age, gender or how rich and famous you are.  

At any time, 12.5% of men in the UK are experiencing a common mental health problem. To put that into perspective, that’s 1 in every 8 men or two to three players in any given football game.

However, compared to women, men are far less likely to confide in a friend or partner or to seek professional help, which means that too many men are suffering in silence and their problems go longer without being resolved. This might explain why men account for 3 in 4 suicides in the UK but it also points to something we might be able to target to lead to positive change: encouraging openness.

As a clinical psychologist who worked for several years in an inner London prison, I was amazed at how much effort some men made to portray a “tough guy” image when inside they were consumed with anxiety or depression. It often seemed to me that harder the exterior that someone portrayed, the more turmoil that was going on underneath.

The thing is, mental health is a fluid concept and lies on a spectrum: we all experience fluctuations along a line between totally thriving and barely surviving, and that is what makes us human.  Anyone who says they’ve never been at the lower end of the spectrum probably isn’t giving you the whole story.

So, what needs to change to give men a more equal footing when it comes to maintaining healthy mental wellbeing?

  • First, know yourself: you need to recognise when there might be a problem. It’s normal to have “off days” and to experience fluctuations in sleep, motivation and appetite, but if symptoms like this persist for more than a fortnight, it could be a sign of underlying depression or anxiety, rather than just a fleeting change.
  • Remember that you don’t need to be at breaking point before you ask for help. Adopting a proactive, preventative approach to mental health is an investment so try to address any issues early before things get out of hand.  
  • Bust the myth that you’ll be wasting the time of busy health professionals if you see them for a “minor problem”. This is absolutely not the case and your GP will be used to talking about mental wellbeing with patients on a daily basis. And if you do feel dismissed or discouraged by your GP, know that you’re entitled to ask to see someone different within the practice.
  • Lose the idea that men need to be stoic and ”just get on with it”. Admitting to feeling off colour is not a sign of weakness and is by no means a reflection of someone’s masculinity.
  • Experiment with showing a little bit of vulnerability and this can pave the way to being more open in general. If you’re not used to talking about how you feel then it’s going to feel a bit weird but it’s worth a try.
  • Check in with your own mates and colleagues in terms of how they’re getting on too – if someone’s behaviour changes or you notice they’re withdrawing socially, open up a conversation and find out if they’re okay.

Numerous campaigns have brought men’s mental health into the spotlight in recent years.

The Movember campaign isn’t just about competing to see who can grow the most comedy facial hair.  They have campaigned fiercely to reduce male suicide and their message is simple: “Talk. Ask. Listen. Encourage action. Check in.”

The Campaign Against Living Miserably is a leading movement against male suicide and they have recently launched the Best Man Project to encourage men to support each other and talk about what’s going on for them.

The message is clear: nobody is exempt from fluctuations in mental health.

We know that proactive, early intervention works best: you’d go to the dentist at the first sign of toothache, and you wouldn’t walk around for weeks on end with a broken ankle, hoping it would sort itself out.  The approach to mental health should be no different, regardless of your gender.

For more information on men’s mental health, check out Time to ChangeCALM or Heads Up.

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