It is estimated that around 12% of men are accessing mental health support in North America compared to over 21% of women. This is despite men having reportedly higher rates of suicidal ideation, substance use and Addiction issues. What prevents men from accessing mental health care at higher rates? What can we do to change this? These are the issues that we will explore in this blog post about men’s mental health.
Barriers to Access
Men may struggle to identify and communicate their issues. This can be because of societal messages around being “macho” and “strong,” which has historically been associated with “sucking it up” and not showing “weakness” about having feelings. Obviously counselling requires vulnerability and openness to be effective and men may not have been modelled these skills, nor think that they are okay to demonstrate. While many men may feel that they are “sensitive” by nature (meaning that they have feelings and react to things), there is not much cultural support and encouragement of this sensitivity and many view it as a “bad” thing.
Isolation. Men are more likely to isolate and go inwards when they are having a tough time than to reach out. Due to this, it may be difficult for loved ones to be aware that there is an issue and support the men in their lives who are struggling. Many may appear to be okay but, really, are not.
Unhealthy coping. Many men will turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as isolation, substance use, and escape of various kinds rather than acknowledging their problems. This entrenches the problems they are having rather than helps things. To add to this, men may receive reinforcement for their unhealthy coping mechanisms as society may view it as adaptive to overwork and overperform; acceptable and expected to go out and use alcohol and other substances; and weird if men are expressing a need for social support and connection as this goes against the male cultural ideals of the past.
Societal messages. Being told that going for counselling is only for “crazy” people is not exactly a ringing endorsement for the process and does not encourage individuals to reach out to get an assessment and/or treatment. These societal messages not only impact the men who are in need of support, but also the practitioners who are there to support them. If healthcare providers themselves have been raised with these ideas of masculinity equaling stoicism and a “stiff upper lip” then they may be less likely to ask the right questions that can lead to appropriate identification of issues and treatment.
Here is a great article that gets into more depth about other barriers men face when seeking mental health care.
Changing the Face of Men’s Mental Health Care
Change starts with you. And me. And everyone. If you identify as a man, please consider:
Learning more about Emotional Intelligence. Developing your skills and capacity with empathy, feelings, communication, and social skills can help reduce stigma and improve one’s confidence in their ability to take care of themselves.
Nurturing your body. Prioritizing healthy nutrition, rest, body movement, and balance in life adds to brain health. Overworking, isolation, substance use, and activities that are hard on the body may provide immediate relief and reward, but are not effective long-term health solutions.
Learning about yourself. Experiment with different hobbies, hang out with different people, read different things, learn. Learn about the world, other people’s perspectives, and, in doing this, learn about yourself. In knowing who we are, we are better able to take care of ourselves.
Considering professional support as a sign of strength. It takes great courage to meet with a stranger and delve into the innermost workings of yourself and your life. It is available to anyone at anytime, not just people who are significantly struggling. Much as going to get your teeth cleaned at the dentist would be recommended before you have a cavity, counselling can be a proactive as well as reactive tool. Remember, you are the one doing work in counselling, not the therapist. Therefore, it is an empowering, self-determined process.
If you have a man in your life that you are concerned about:
Be gently encouraging. Support them in a way that makes sense for the person. Talking about the downsides to their current situation may help some, whereas others may appreciate normalization of professional care, self-care, and self-help. Whatever the approach, be gentle but consistent in your expression of concern and support for them to take different steps to wellness.
Be a role model. If you want someone else to take care of themselves differently, the best thing you can do is take care of yourself. This gives you the resources and strength to navigate your life and whatever situation you are dealing with AND it shows others that boundaries, self-care and even professional support can be helpful. Your actions may be the source of inspiration you are hoping for more than any words can be.
Talk to them. Open up dialogue. Invite male family members out, go visit them, text, do an activity with them, play a board game, be there. Men may be reluctant to reach out and may not know how to ask for help but social contact and knowing that people care can help someone improve their mental health as well as become more willing to take care of themselves differently. Don’t hesitate to ask direct questions, nothing is accomplished with passive and indirect communication. Be caring, empathetic yet assertive.
We have a long ways to go when it comes to men’s mental health. Young men are increasingly isolating and using online tools like pornography to replace real relationships. This deprives them of social skills and sets up unrealistic expectations for life. This leads to depression, anxiety, substance use, suicidal ideation, and more. Let’s help men be comfortable and confident with relationships, intimacy, and self-care. Change starts with each of us right here, right now. I know you’re up for the task.