Mental health is finally being addressed. It is now mainstream; discussed more frequently and with greater understanding and vigour. It is now a prevalent theme in the working environment, social groups, sports teams and within a home environment. Before, how we think and feel has often been neglected or placed at the bottom of the pile. Our physical health has always been prioritised, but now our emotional wellbeing is being put on the same platform and given the same attention. This is undoubtedly progress. But there is still much to be done.
As a broad issue, our understanding and treatment of mental health has come a long way. It is still, however, being held back by a major challenge: men’s mental health. The fact that 76% of suicides are men and that suicide is the biggest cause of death for men under thirty-five, is a worrying reality. Again, there are ongoing efforts to treat this issue. But it is changing all the time. In the 21st century, it incorporates a broader conceptualisation of health, health behaviours and lifestyle choices.
Look no further than the current situation. The coronavirus poses a threat to our safety, health and wellbeing, and it touches powerful, fundamental fears about losing control, helplessness and mortality – all common mental health fears, which are currently heightened. We are all made increasingly aware that men’s mental health is a significant problem. But why is it such an issue? There are a number of factors preventing it from being managed effectively. Here we take a look at the two major causes for concern.
The Male Approach
‘Man up:’ a term that captures many of the problems that men face when dealing with mental health. It’s a macho persona, reinforced by male stereotypes throughout history. Despite a conscious effort to limit this type of language, it is as much a culture as it is a passing comment. History and tradition do not encourage men to show emotion. If you are a grown man who shows emotion, you are sometimes seen as weak. Hard to believe in modern day society, but sadly this is still engrained within male circles. The male image is one of strength, stability and courage. A lack of these characteristics is in many cases seen as a lack of identity – a flawed male figure. This is why men struggle to speak about their emotions. This propagates stigma. And men are forced to put on a brave face; only masking their true emotions.
They are far less likely to express troubles and are less likely to discuss sensitive issues. This becomes a trend in every walk of life, most noticeably in the workplace. 34% of men agreed or strongly agreed that they were ‘constantly feeling stressed or under immense pressure.’ And the same proportion admitted they would be embarrassed or ashamed to take time off work for mental health concerns, such as anxiety or depression. This kind of pressure can be incredibly taxing on everyday life; removing yourself from it and seeking help isn’t easy.
Men seek treatment less often than women, and they are more likely to terminate therapy early. Again, this is down to the stigma attached to mental health. It can, however, be largely assigned to the belief that men are generally far more reluctant to seek any form of general medical care than women. The major risk is that men often turn to substance abuse as a form of relief. Instead of addressing and dealing with their issues, they see drugs or alcohol as a temporary fix.
Drugs and alcohol are essentially a coping mechanism. But they can be attributed to a more generic male tendency. This has been outlined in a comparative study between emotion-focused coping and problem-focused coping. When men are forced to deal with emotional issues, they will actively confront a problem, addressing the stressor. Perhaps an issue at work, a fallout with friends or the loss of a loved one. Unlike men, women are far more likely to employ emotion-focused strategies, aimed at changing one’s emotions regarding the stressor through avoidance and tension relief. Women tend to dig deeper and address the root of the problem; men are more likely to skim the surface, only subduing the problem for the time being.
Understanding these variations in approaches is good progress. But it is important not to let these dictate our treatment of men’s mental health. For example, if we follow the notion that men are more likely to externalise their problems, we risk ignoring those that internalise. We cannot afford to paint every case with the same brush.
Before, mental health – for both men and women – was discussed as a broader issue, with treatment encompassing both sexes. The issue is, when people use the term sex, they are limited to considerations of biological mechanisms. When they use term gender, however, they can widen their focus into analysis of social, cultural and psychological issues that pertain to the traits, norms, stereotypes and roles of women and men.
As we all know, health is a complex construct, and our discussion must include higher levels of emotional and psychological functioning. The fact is, when it comes to men’s mental health, there are still a number of grey areas. There has always been a much broader focus on mental health, which means male-related literature and research is still in its teething phase. Assessing mental health from a gender standpoint is effective. But there is a fine line between using these similarities appropriately and forming preconceived misconceptions. These are just some of the complexities that men’s mental health faces.
The more we discuss, the more we know. This can be applied throughout men’s mental health. The more comfortable and willing men are to talk about their feelings, the better our understanding. This will inform discussions on the best forms of treatment and our overall approach to men’s mental health. It is a silent epidemic. Talking about it is our best chance to solve it.
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