Dr T Ayodele Ajayi shares some insights on how you can encourage men to open up about their emotional well-being and mental health
The statistics regarding men’s mental health calls for concern. Three quarters (75%) of suicides in the UK occur in males (National Confidential Inquiry into Suicide and Safety in Mental Health). Globally, suicide is twice as common in males than in females (WHO), yet only a third (36%) of referrals to Increased Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) in England are for men.
The conversation on how to support the men in our lives with their mental health could not be more timely. The challenge however remains that only one out of four men feel able to talk to friends or family about their mental well-being. Men would rather talk about politics, sports and the economy, than emotions. Serious topics — like mental health, sexual problems and money — remain hard to broach with even their closest of companions, according to a recent survey. Could these facts partly explain this disproportionate gender suicide? The most at-risk men are war veterans, low-income earners, ethnic minorities, gay and the middle-aged. What is also a cause for concern is that a good percentage of men also feel it’s a waste of their 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 contribute to this, and possibly detrimental to the species’ well-being? Some research suggests that a reliance on these traditional ideals of 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 (Seidler et al, 2016).
Broaching The Topic
From years of negotiating this difficult terrain — both in my professional and social life — there are certain principles that appear to work when it comes to encouraging men to talk about their feelings and emotions.
Authenticity – Many worry that not being mental health experts disqualifies them from supporting or talking to another person about their mental distress. Just being a listening ear and offering compassion, empathy and thoughtfulness are what is required.
Attentiveness – Men are not as florid with language when expressing mental distress. Be on the look-out for phrases such as “I’m feeling stressed, I’m not feeling my usual self”, as they may be the cue for you to ask again: “Are you sure you’re OK?” Check www.ruok.org.au for conversation prompts.
Privacy – Sometimes the opportunity to talk to a 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 person to confide.
Parity – Approaching a friend as a peer rather than as his superior is more likely to get him talking. Phrases such as “man up” or “grow up” have been identified as conversation blockers. No man wants another advising them on how to run their lives! A collaborative approach to a safety plan is more effective. Don’t forget to agree 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 first ask how their friend is doing, hoping that reciprocation will open a conversation. I have found that sharing some of my vulnerabilities can be a great way to put the other person 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 on something that is going right in their lives. That may well be thanking them for granting you access to the 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 disclosure may be mandatory if a suicidal or homicidal plan is disclosed. In such rare instances, it is best to let the other person know why it is in their best interests to share, so they can receive immediate help.
Dr T Ayodele Ajayi MBchB FRCPsych is a consultant psychiatrist, founder and convener of The Tripart Care Emotional Well-being Hub and has a YouTube channel called TriPart Care
Written by: Dr T Ayodele Ajayi