To mark International Men’s Health Week 2021 (14 - 20 June), Agnieszka Walczuk, a head Coach at a leading workplace mental health organisation, Sanctus, shares her advice for talking to the men in our life about their wellbeing - as well how to identify the key signs that someone might be struggling and in need of some support.
When it comes to mental health and men, the facts and stats make for a difficult reading. We’ve all seen the headlines, we’ve watched the campaigns and, chances are, we all know at least one man who has been impacted by mental health challenges at some point in their life.
And yet, despite the growing awareness, suicide remains the single biggest killer among men aged under 45 in the UK. In fact, according to the mental health charity Ben, British men are three times more likely to take their own lives than women.
Whether it’s due to a desire to appear strong, the pressure to ‘man up’, or simply not being able to find the words to describe how they feel, many men are still choosing to remain silent and not seek help.
Sometimes, because men and women are impacted by different influencing factors, women - girlfriends, wives, sisters, mothers and friends - can find it hard to understand or can be dismissive of why men can become negatively impacted by certain events in their lives. For example, men’s triggers often stem from societal expectations and traditional gender roles, which may lead men to think that they must:
be the breadwinner and have to provide for the family no matter what
display traditional “masculine” traits, such as strength, fearlessness, decisiveness and being in control
be self-sufficient and not seek help from others
display emotional stoicism at all times
have their identity fused with their work and professional status
Being defined by these beliefs can negatively impact men’s mental health and prevent them from reaching out to others or accessing support. However, this doesn’t mean we should give up on trying to start a conversation with the men we care about.
What to look out for in men who may be struggling:
Men often channel their pain as anger and aggression (also known as the anger iceberg - where anger is actually the result of something else below the surface)
Excessive use of alcohol or using drugs to self-soothe and self-medicate
Reckless behaviour or taking unnecessary risks - a fake kind of bravado can cover up insecurity and feeling out of place
Poor sleep, changes in appetite, looking unkempt
Changes in daily habits or routines that negatively impact their social or work life that don’t appear to raise concerns of the individual in question
Withdrawing from people or activities, appearing numb or feeling flat, and a disinterest in activities that used to bring them enjoyment
Complaining of physical symptoms without a clear cause
Dropping comments about things appearing hopeless or pointless, or expressing thoughts that the world would be better off without them
Always being the life and soul of the party and never ever appearing to be struggling or have a concern (the pressure to be ‘the happy one’ can become a trap or a role difficult to get out of)
A major change in circumstances e.g. loss of job, breakdown of marriage, retirement, failed exams
How to talk to men about their mental health:
1/ Find the right space
Opening up about mental health is no mean feat, especially when it’s for the very first time. Face-to-face, ‘intervention’ style conversations can often feel intense and intimidating. If you want to encourage a loved one to open up to you, try and do it in an environment that’s slightly more relaxed. Going for a walk or car journey is good because it means you don’t have to sit directly in front of each other and maintain eye contact. Try talking while doing something together - go fishing, clean up the garage, watch a movie together. If he’s inviting you to go for a drink one-on-one, he might want to have a proper chat, so go and look out for the hint. When the opportunity comes, sit on your hands and listen.
2/ Make sure you’re the right person they need to talk to
It may feel counterintuitive, but trust and connection requires boundaries. Sharing is not always caring. When we are under-equipped to be with a man who is in serious struggle, we may resort to comforting and rescuing rather than listening, making them feel even more isolated and inadequate.
3/ Notice ‘toxic’ masculinity
Know when to end the banter, the egging each other on, the fake bravado. We all like a bit of that from time to time, but it’s also easy to spot when someone’s not in the mood or they want to be serious. If you notice something is different about your friend, or your jokes aren’t going down so well, ask how they are doing – and ask twice!
4/ Ask twice
And a third, forth or fifth time if you need to. If your intuition is telling you that someone you care about is struggling, don’t give up just because they brush you off with ‘I’m fine’. Men often feel they shouldn’t have to ask for help and don’t want to burden someone else with their problems - but by continuing to ask, you are showing that you care and you are giving them permission to talk.
5/ Stop asking men about their feelings and ask about the meaning
What does it mean to you to lose this contract? What did this do to you to not get that job? Where does it leave you to lose your children? Asking about meaning may seem less touchy-feely and therefore more accessible. Men tend to be more direct and straight to-the-point; the softly-softly approach can actually be more off-putting and awkward.
6/ Share your experience
Lots of men brush off questions about their mental health because it’s a difficult and uncomfortable subject that they’re probably not used to talking about. In fact, research has shown that when asked, 78 per cent of people say that they are fine even if they are struggling with their mental health. So instead of probing someone with questions, try sharing an experience of your own that they might be able to relate to. Firstly, this shows that they are not alone, and secondly, it creates a two-way dialogue where you are both able to express your vulnerabilities in a safe and supportive way.
7/ Accept you might not have all the answers
When talking to a male loved one about their challenges, there will almost certainly be things you don’t understand or know how to address properly - and that’s okay. You don’t have to have all the answers and sometimes, one of the best things you can do for someone you care about is encourage them to seek professional help.
8/ Don't panic if your husband, partner or a friend is struggling with suicidal thoughts
Don’t panic and don't comfort straight away, hear them out - why they want to do it, how they want to do it, when they want to do it. Those who talk about doing it, are less likely to go through with it. Suicide is a taboo, it thrives on secrecy, silence and judgement. Listen first, then seek professional help through a GP, the Samaritans or another charity that helps with men’s issues like CALM.
9/ And finally, when men start talking, let them talk
There’s a perception that men don’t talk about their problems or feelings, but the reality is that men will talk to those who listen to them. Well-wishing spouses or girlfriends can sometimes find it hard to see a man in struggle; it’s counter-cultural and the truth is we are sometimes dismayed or shocked by vulnerability in men. Many of us rush to men’s defence - "You’re not a failure!" - and stop the conversation in its tracks. Let men vent about the crisis of meaning, their wounded identity or about feeling like a coward, without trying to make it better for them. Disappointments need space to breathe. Don’t become another person they need to defend themselves against because you can’t be with their struggle or vulnerability.
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