Man-to-Man

How To Talk To Men About Mental Health.

Movember

As Movember is commemorated globally this month to raise awareness, and funds for men’s health issues, it is a good time to focus on mental health. With one in eight men in England reporting a common mental health condition and one in three Scottish men stating they have experienced suicidal ideas on account of stress (Mental Health Foundation), the conversation on how to support a mate with their mental health is timely.

The challenge, however, remains that only one, in four men, feel they are able to talk to friends or family about their mental wellbeing.

In a 2019 survey by Time To Change less than half of the 3000 men asked disclosed that they’ve had less than two heart-to-hearts talk with a male friend in the last year. Men would rather talk about politics, sports and the economy, than emotions. According to another survey, serious topics like mental health, sex life, and money remain hard topics to broach with even their closest companions. Could these stats partly explain why 3 out of 4 suicide deaths in the UK occur in men? The most at-risk men are war veterans, low-income earners, BAME, gay and the middle-aged. What is also concerning is that a good percentage of men also feel it’s a waste of the GP’s time to talk about anxiety or depression.

The Alpha Male

Why does the male gender struggle so much to talk about feelings and emotions? Could the traditional societal definition of masculinity and the expectation of stoicism, strength, dominance, and control from the Alpha Male be contributory to this, and possibly detrimental to the species well-being? Some research suggests that a reliance on these traditional ideals as what it means to be “a man” may negatively impact men’s mental health. Men who feel as though they are unable to speak openly about emotions may be less able to recognise symptoms of mental health problems in themselves, and less likely to reach out for support ( Sielder et al. 2016).

Broaching The Topic

From years of negotiating this difficult terrain, both in my professional and private life, there are certain principles that appear to work on getting us men to talk about our feelings and emotions.

Authenticity – Many men worry that not being mental health experts disqualifies them from supporting or talking to another man about their mental distress. In reality, just being a listening mate who offers compassion, empathy and thoughtfulness is what is required.

Attentiveness – Men are not as florid with language when expressing mental distress. So, be on the lookout for such phrases as “I’m feeling stressed,” or “I’m not feeling my usual self,” as they may be the clue to ask again “Are you sure you are OK”? Check www.ruok.org.au for conversation prompts.

Privacy – Sometimes, the opportunity to talk to another man about their mental state comes at an unguarded moment of disclosure. At other times, it may require some preparation on the part of the supporter to arrange a private place and time to talk. An invitation to lunch, coffee or even a jog or walk can be what it takes for the other to confide in their mates.

Parity – Approaching a friend as a peer rather than superior is more likely to get them talking. Such phrases as “man up” or “grow up” have been identified as conversation blockers. No man wants another man advising them on how to run their lives! A collaborative approach to a safety plan is more effective. Don’t forget to agree on further support and checking in times and methods.

Reciprocity – 35% of men surveyed in 2019 disclosed that if they wanted to talk to a friend about their mental health, they would ask how their friend is doing in anticipation the reciprocation will open a conversation. I have found that sharing some of my vulnerabilities can be a great way to put others at ease.

Celebration – One of the greatest boosters you can give another man at their moment of mental distress is to offer a genuine compliment of something that is going right in their lives. That may well be thanking them for granting you access to the innermost recesses of their hearts.

Confidentiality – Men will only share their emotions, insecurities, and feelings if they know they are safe with you. The caveat to confidentiality would be that a disclosure may be mandatory if a suicidal or homicidal plan is disclosed. In such rare instances, it is best to let your friend know why it is in their best interest to share to get them immediate help.

As I’m a fellow in the same ship (fellowship), I look forward to hearing your thoughts by email at tripartcare@gmail.com

By Dr T. Ayodele Ajayi
Consultant Psychiatrist