Shaping conversations about men’s mental health

As part of Men's Health Week, Professor Stuart CarneyDean of The University of Queensland Medical School, discusses how we can create a culture where it’s OK to say that we’re not OK.

Please note the following blog discusses men’s mental health and suicide. Support services are provided below if you find any of the information distressing.

Men’s Health Week presents us with another opportunity to have an open conversation about a topic that many of us aren’t great at talking about: our mental health.

To be very clear from the outset, in focusing on the health of men – including trans men or those with trans history, along with non-binary or gender fluid folk – I think it’s important to recognise that this is not just a matter for the individuals affected, but for the whole community. The best people to improve men’s mental health in Australia are those who live and work with men in our communities and in our workplaces. In short, everyone.

An image of Professor Stuart Carney

For all of us, and especially those like me in positions of leadership, we need to continue our efforts to improve the mental health awareness, knowledge, and skills of our community. In this way, we can promote a culture that encourages open conversations about mental health, highlight the resources and services available, and promote self-care behaviour, including appropriate help-seeking.

An image of a man during a group counselling discussion.

Why is it important to talk about men’s mental health?

Mental health issues affect nearly half of all Australian adults at some point in their lives, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing: Summary of Results 2007.

Although not as high as the reported rates in women, 20 per cent of men will meet the diagnostic criteria for an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives and 12 per cent will experience a mood disorder.

Men, however, are far more likely to suffer the severe consequences of destructive coping mechanisms such as suicide, drugs and alcohol. Consider for instance:

I’m sure that, like me, you will find these figures alarming. And for every life lost to suicide, there are people who’ve lost someone they cared about and are left to struggle with their grief. Again, these are matters that affect everyone.

Despite these rates of mental illness and suicide, men are under-represented when it comes to engaging in health-seeking behaviours. 

An image of men supporting each other in a group discussion.
Image: SDI Productions/Getty Images
So, why aren’t men seeking help if they need it?

Well, as with many of the problems in life, the reasons are varied and complex.    

What is apparent is that a lot of men are reluctant to talk to or see someone about their concerns. They may feel it is somehow a sign of weakness, that their worries aren’t serious enough, or that they’ll be judged by friends and family. Barriers to help-seeking behaviours include outdated approaches to gender identity and the behaviour we expect from people in our society.

Regrettably, too many men still grow up with the idea of a ‘stiff upper lip’ and needing to be ‘tough’.

Others feel that seeking help for anxiety and depression will negatively impact on their employment and job security and so don’t access help, resulting in significant distress and sometimes the catastrophic effects we are all familiar with. 

The differences in reported lifetime prevalence between men and women of depression, anxiety and substance-use disorder also raise questions. In my own profession, there is considerable discussion around these matters and debate as to whether we, as clinicians and researchers, are misdiagnosing men. For example, are we failing to detect depression in men? Similarly, are we misdiagnosing men with substance-use disorder when the primary issue is depression? These are complex but important questions.

But the key message is, people should not be suffering in silence and should not be suffering alone.

An image of two men walking and talking after a game of basketball.
Image: Westend61/Getty Images

How can we change this?

I think this begins with looking after ourselves.

As Beyond Blue notes, everyone’s mental health varies during their life, moving between positive and healthy at one end through to severe symptoms or conditions impacting everyday life at the other. Difficult life events such as relationship separation or conflict, financial problems, unemployment or bereavement can all take their toll.

In the world we live in, it’s easy to forget to look after yourself. Often, there are so many things on the ‘to-do’ list that we put ourselves last. Exercise, keeping physically healthy, and staying connected with friends and family are critically important for looking after ourselves. We also need to be mindful of our own ‘tells’ and signs that we may not be coping and seek support from friends, family or a health professional. Beyond Blue offers some good tips for keeping well.

An image of two men exercising doing pushups.
Image: Westend61/Getty Images
In the same way that we are, thankfully, becoming more comfortable talking about physical health issues, we should be having conversations with colleagues and supervisors, and asking, “What can we do to bolster mental health?” For a great many cases of mental distress that we are seeing, if we support individuals at an earlier stage, they may not require more specialised input later on. A lot can be prevented through a supportive culture.

We can all play a role in destigmatising mental illness and communicating to our colleagues and friends that it’s okay to put our hand up if we’ve got problems. If you’re not sure how to start these conversations, or to listen to someone who opens up to you, there are excellent tips from Beyond Blue and Movember.

We want to empower individuals to detect the early warning signs and then to find the services and resources to draw upon. We want people to speak up, speak out and get help, whether this is opening up to family, friends or a health professional. 

An image of two men hugging.

Image: SDI Productions/Getty Images

Help is available

If you’re going through a tough time, or struggling with depression or anxiety, please seek support from friends, family, your colleagues, your GP or other health professionals.

The mental health of the men in our lives is a matter for everyone. Help build a culture where it is OK to say that we are not OK.