After too many decades as an unspoken topic, mental health has finally become a common talking point among men in recent years.
Campaigns like Movember have helped to raise awareness of men’s mental health issues, and an array of household names from Prince William to David Beckham have helped to shed the stigma and bring the topic into the light. However, just because the problem has seen some long-overdue acknowledgement, that doesn’t mean it’s shrinking. In the UK alone, 1 in 8 men will suffer with a recognised mental health condition, and suicide remains the single biggest killer of men under 50.
This year has seen men and women of all ages face challenges to their mental health that they couldn’t have foreseen. From loneliness to anxiety and depression, it’s likely that the problem has grown significantly among men in 2020, and some of the progress made in recent years has been reversed. While research shows that 83% of men find it helpful to be asked if they are having a difficult time, 46% said that no one had done so during the pandemic.
As winter approaches and issues such as isolation and low mood look set to become worse, it’s as good a time as ever for men to be more forthcoming about their mental health. Dr Jonathan Pointer, Chartered Clinical Psychologist at TherapySanctuary.com, has provided his insight into how to best approach the topic with a family member or friend if you suspect they’re suffering, or if you’re being affected by mental health yourself.
Lifestyle changes to tackle mental health issues
As well as seeking the help you need by talking to someone that you trust, there are many lifestyle changes that you can make. These can impact a wide range of mental health conditions and make a positive difference to how you’re feeling day-to-day.
– Connect with others. Having good relationships helps to build self-worth and can provide better emotional support. While it’s difficult to arrange days out or meals with friends in the current circumstances, making the most of technology even to touch base with someone you’ve not spoken to in some time can feel really worthwhile.
– Stay physically active. You don’t have to be running marathons; even a little exercise every day can cause chemical changes in the brain that lift your mood. Setting goals and achieving them, however big or small, also helps to raise your self-esteem. Find something joy and make it part of your life, rather than forcing yourself to do exercise as a chore.
– Cut out unhealthy habits. Processed foods, excessive alcohol and cigarette smoking can all be severely detrimental to your mental health. A recent study, ‘Quitting Smoking for Mental Health’ found that cigarettes directly impact mental as well as physical health. Ex-smokers said that they saw an immediate improvement in their mental health after quitting, and the effect was even greater after four weeks.
– Learn new skills like cooking, a DIY project, painting or a new sport. Focusing your mind on something engaging boosts self-confidence and helps you to build a sense of purpose. You could even sign up to a course or try taking on a new responsibility at work.
– Pay attention to the present. Practising mindfulness can help you to enjoy daily life more and to understand yourself better, which has a real impact on your overall mental wellbeing. There are many different ways to be mindful and you’re sure to find one that works for you.
How to help – steps to offer support and broach the topic of mental health –
Create a safe environment
– If we sense that someone may need support, or that person has indicated that they are wanting to begin the process themselves, then we need to look for or create a safe environment, where they will not be overheard or interrupted.
– Give them time and space, because this is their process of opening up.
Go slow and don’t pressurise
– The person’s process of opening up may need to be in stage and not completed in one conversation. Once the person feels that they can trust you, watch out for opportunities to follow up the previous conversation. People will often give subtle signals that they want to broach the conversation again. Going slow can speed up the process.
– If someone opens up to you about their mental health issues, then it is important to recognise that it has probably taken bravery on their part to do so, as they have taken what feels to them like a risk. It is important to treat both the person and the conversation with respect.
Let them lead the conversation
– Men in particular often worry about ‘giving up control.” Therefore, it is important to keep the locus of control with the person who is opening up. Instead, acknowledge what they are saying to you by reflecting back to them your understanding of what they are saying.
– Helping them name and acknowledge their feelings and beliefs, which are thoughts which are perceived as true. Unhelpful beliefs can create barriers that prevent a person opening up about their mental health issues, as well as perpetuate their distress. These can include beliefs about their own experiences and feelings. For example, the toxic belief that men are only permitted to show their distress through anger and frustration, rather than expressing what is driving these feelings (for example, anxiety), means that some men would rather open up about experiencing anger which may not be perceives as related to mental health issues, rather than, for example, their anxiety, OCD, and/or depression.
Listen without judgement
– The issue of shame is often a large barrier to men, regarding the process of opening up about their mental health issues, because of unhelpful beliefs about masculinity, mental health issues, & seeking support. For example, shame, is often caused by unhelpful cultural beliefs, such as “men shouldn’t talk about their feelings,” “men don’t cry,” and “men are supposed to be emotionally independent and that to seek emotional support from others is a sign of weakness, and of being less than a “real” man” These beliefs are unhelpful, and do not serve anyone well.
– Shame is perpetuated by deliberately not disclosing an aspect of ourselves that we fear will provoke judgment in others. However, the more we hide the aspects of ourselves that are shameful to us, the more shame we experience. Conversely, the more we open up, the less shame we feel.
– Our own experiences of shame can be softened and quietened by our development of an attitude of non-judgment, acceptance, and compassion towards ourselves. This is important because people experience fear and shame, based on the concerns that they will be judged, pitied, and no longer seen by others and themselves for who they were before they opened up.
Do a little research and suggest where to seek help
– If appropriate, when the person is ready, you may wish to suggest self-help books that are recommended by mental health professionals, and/or signpost them towards professional therapy services.
What charities can help with men’s mental health?
Mental Health Foundation
Time to Change