Boys do cry; Men's mental health myths

Last month I was very privileged to be asked by Jamila's Legacy to help present an introductory workshop on men's mental health. It's an interesting topic for several reasons, most notably because it's not something that gets discussed much. The issues that men suffer are no different to women - we suffer from anxiety the same way, depression the same way, stress has the same chemical affect on our bodies as it does women, but it's different in one key area - we don't talk about it.

Back at the start of 2016 the government pledged an increase in mental health funding of almost a billion pounds. As part of this announcement they specifically mentioned funding set aside for under 21's to combat the prevalent issues of anxiety, depression and eating disorders. For women they pledged 290 million towards support for post natal depression. And yet nothing was mentioned about supporting men's mental health issues, despite the fact that in the UK 4 out of every 5 suicides are carried out by men. In fact suicide is the biggest killer of men under 35 years of age. Men are also three times more likely to be in treatment for drug or alcohol addiction than women, representing the growing trend for self medicating. We are all aware of the possibility of post natal depression in new mums, and the additional funding is a welcome boost towards tackling this issue, but what of the one in ten fathers who suffer from post natal depression?

If the issues are so big why aren't we talking about them more? One of the biggest reasons is that men just aren't expected, or sometimes even allowed to discuss what's troubling them. How many times have you heard someone say "boys don't cry"? Or looked to a male figure, such as a father or grandfather, to be the strong dependable one? Society creates a pressure on men to be be strong, independent, to cope with whatever is happening and not to crumble under the stress. In British culture we can add the "stiff upper lip" mentality to that also. There are many reasons why this might have come about, and I don't intend to go into them here, but the result is a culture where men have to suppress any negative emotions, bury our vulnerability and present a face to the world that says we can handle it, even when we're falling apart inside. Admitting our issues can be seen as a weakness, or a sign of failure, most notably in the eyes of other men.

So what can we do to address this issue? Well a survey conducted by YouGov for the Mental Health Foundation (2016) found that:

- 28% of men had not sought medical help for the last mental health problem they experienced compared to 19% of women.

- A third of women (33%) who disclosed a mental health problem to a friend or loved one did so within a month, compared to only a quarter of men (25%)

- Over a third of men (35%) waited more than 2 years or have never disclosed a mental health problem to a friend or family member, compared to a quarter of women (25%).

What these statistics show is that men don't feel comfortable talking about the issues they're facing. This is the barrier that we need to overcome before we can start making and real or lasting headway with this issue. Understanding the pressures that are facing men who are suffering from mental health issues is a strong starting point. Being open to allowing someone to express how they’re feeling and showing empathy and acceptance makes huge strides in normalising how they’re feeling. And normalising is probably the key here. The mental health issues and symptoms faced are identical to women, so it’s important that we make it a normal experiences for men to be going through.

Stop the cycle. Break the silence. It’s such a massive issue that it isn’t something that can be changed overnight. But it is something you can change overnight in your own little circles. How you speak about the subject to your family and friends, if you choose to speak about it to family and friends at all, these are steps that can have a huge impact on those closest to you. Make it a conversation that you can have, not one to be avoided. This makes it okay if someone is struggling that they can feel supported enough to talk about it.

And if you are struggling with depression, anxiety or any other mental health issue, please know that you are not alone. The statistics show that one in eight men are diagnosed with depression, anxiety, panic attacks or OCD etc., and that's just the people we know about. Men suffer in silence more often than not, until they reach a crisis point where it becomes unbearable, which goes some way to accounting for the high suicide rates. Seek help from your GP - it's confidential and a good starting point. Seek out professional help, whether that's through counselling, charity organisations (Time to Change have a great list of organisations here) and by talking to family and friends.

Finally, admitting that things aren't okay is never a sign of weakness. It takes immense courage to do so, breaking through all the stigma that surrounds men's mental health. And it's a very normal thing to go through.

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