Men’s Mental Health
The importance of mental health is becoming more evident each year, especially since the pandemic and the subsequent shutdowns. Public figures such as Simone Biles and Brad Pitt are openly addressing their mental health challenges, which is helping to alleviate some of the stigma surrounding those who struggle. There are online therapists, making it easier than ever for people to access care from the comfort and privacy of their own homes.
Things are shifting regarding our openness and awareness of the importance of mental health, but what about our men?
Men in our culture are typically taught from birth that their role is to be strong, to be a leader and that their emotions are a sign of weakness and not masculinity. They learn not to be a “burden” to others, and that they should always solve their own problems if possible.
Not talking to others about your struggles can lead to social isolation, increasing relationship strife, and worsening symptoms of depression and anxiety. We know for sure that keeping it all bottled in is detrimental to our mental health.
Facts and Statistics
Researchers have drastically increased their focus on men’s mental health in the past decade for 3 main reasons:
Men experience certain mental health issues at a significantly higher rate than women.
Research shows that socioeconomic change is marginalizing certain subgroups of men.
Criminologists, educators, and psychologists/psychiatrists have successfully pushed for more attention to men’s (and boys’) mental health.
There are several factors that contribute to developing mental health issues in men. Keep in mind, women also experience these factors, but societal and social norms dictate men remain stoic and “keep a stiff upper lip” in the face of struggle and adversity. This makes it difficult for them to reach out for help when they are suffering, and in many cases, to even realize that they need help.
Men who firmly conform to typical masculine norms and roles tend to experience poorer mental health.
Extreme emotional events, such as sexual abuse, combat experience, and consistently high-stress situations (firefighters, policemen, first responders) can lead to the development of anxiety disorders, depression, and PTSD.
Unemployment and retirement are both associated with an increased likelihood of depression in men. One in 7 men who lose their jobs become depressed.
Men often see themselves as the provider and the one who keeps the family happy and together. Depression is both more prevalent and severe in divorced men.
Economic struggles are a top cause of stress for many people, and can certainly play a factor in developing mental health disorders. Men often feel it is their “role” to provide financially.
There is a strong stigma in our culture, that “real men don’t ask for help.” Men who adhere to stereotypical masculine norms are often reluctant to seek out therapy or help because they have been taught that “talking about it won’t fix anything.” Unfortunately, ignoring mental health challenges doesn’t make them go away, and can in fact worsen them over time.
These stigmas are particularly dangerous for men; they are less likely to seek out help, therefore, more likely to turn to dangerous practices to cope, such as substance abuse.
Depression in Men
Depression (in the clinical sense) isn’t temporary sadness or grief. It is a condition that affects the ability to think, feel, and manage daily activities. Depression is not as easily recognizable in men as in women; men tend to exhibit signs of anger or aggression as opposed to sadness.
Men with depression often feel very tired, and lose interest in work, family, and hobbies. They may have difficulty sleeping. Often their symptoms manifest physically. A racing heart, tight chest, persistent headache, or digestive problems can all be signs of mental health issues.
Signs and Symptoms of Depression in Men
Everyone behaves differently when struggling with their mental health, but some common symptoms of depression in men include:
If you recognize any of these symptoms in yourself or a loved one, please know that help is available. It is often a family member who first recognizes depression in their male loved ones, and it’s important to be supportive and non-judgmental. Encourage them to seek out medical or mental health care sooner rather than later.
Treatment for depression can consist of medication, therapy, or a combination of both. The “collaborative-care” approach is increasing in popularity and combines physical and behavioral health care in order to treat depression.
You can’t treat your loved one, but you can support him by:
If a crisis is imminent, reach out for help immediately. Call 911 for emergency services. The National Suicide Hotline number is 1-800-273-8255.
Substance Use Disorders in Men
Trauma is a major risk factor for the development of a SUD in both men and women, but because men are less like to reach out for help after surviving trauma, they are more likely to turn to substances in order to cope with the subsequent emotional distress.
Dependency on alcohol and other substances can be sneaky and insidious. A few beers occasionally don’t seem like a big deal, but eventually, you start to need more and more beer (or other substances) to achieve the same sedative effect. Men tend to become dependent more slowly than women, meaning they drink or use drugs for a longer period of time before their use becomes an obvious problem.
If you feel that you or someone you care for may have a problem with alcohol or other drugs, some signs and symptoms of dependency or addiction can look like:
A person who presents with a SUD as well as a mental health disorder, such as depression, is said to have comorbidity or a dual diagnosis. This simply means they have two medical conditions simultaneously, and the two conditions tend to interact with each other.
More than half of people who present with SUD also have a mental disorder and vice versa. There are high rates of comorbidity with SUD and anxiety disorders, PTSD, bipolar disorder, and depression. People with schizophrenia are more likely than the general population to use alcohol, drugs, and nicotine. 6
This simply goes to show that a lot of people who use alcohol and drugs in a habitual manner are doing so to mask or avoid mental and emotional problems, also referred to as “self-medication”. And the longer one self-medicates, the bigger a problem the substance becomes, making it increasingly difficult to get to the heart of the initial mental health issue.
If you or a loved one are struggling with substance abuse or dependence, reach out for help as soon as possible. Addiction is a progressive disease, meaning it gets worse as time goes on, regardless of whether the person is using it or not. Things will continue to worsen until the person gets help or something tragic occurs.
Suicide in Men
The highest risk factor for suicide is family history. If a parent dies by suicide, the chances of their children also dying by suicide increase by tenfold or more. Other risk factors for men include:
Men are also at a higher risk of dying by suicide because they tend to use more lethal means, such as firearms. They tend to suffer in silence, which can lead to using alcohol and drugs to numb the pain; being under the influence can increase the likelihood of a suicide attempt.
If you’re concerned about a family member or loved one, signs of suicidal ideation may include:
Suicide is devastating for families and loved ones. Many people who have survived suicide attempts state that they didn’t want to die necessarily, but they just couldn’t bear to feel the way they were feeling any longer. And couldn’t see any other way to escape that pain.
This is why it’s so important to talk to people when we are hurting. And just as important to check in with the people we love. When we are struggling with our mental health, it’s easy to lose perspective. It may seem like your current distress is permanent, that nothing will ever change, and that death is the only conceivable way out.
If you or a loved one are struggling with any of these suicide risk factors – depression, isolation, recently becoming widowed, or excessive alcohol or drug use – please reach out and talk to someone. There is help, there is hope, and there is a better way out of your pain.
Times are changing; both men and women are embracing the idea that mental health is just as important as our physical health, sometimes more so. Yet men are still struggling to ask for help. Many of them simply don’t know how. Cultural norms go deep, and asking for help is unfortunately still taboo amongst our male population.
None of us is responsible for “fixing” another person. Only the one suffering can truly take the necessary steps toward healing. We can, however, be supportive and offer up our own experiences and hope to the men we care for.
Here are some ideas for offering support to men who may be struggling with their mental health:
No one, man or woman, loves being nagged or told what to do. Yet countless men have started therapy, meditation, or hired a personal coach because they saw their spouse or friends do so with success. If they see you or another friend or loved one improving their moods and lives through these tactics, they are more likely to jump on the bandwagon. This strategy may take some time, but in return, you both get to improve your lives.
Men (and women) are more likely to take the lead from someone they respect or admire. Many men believe that only “weak” or “different” men are willing to ask for help with mental health. Pay attention to the men your loved one admires, and point out those who have opened up about their struggles. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Brad Pitt, and Michael Phelps have all gone public with their mental health issues. Even rich, successful, famous strong athletes and movie stars need help sometimes. It is not a sign of weakness.
It’s ok to say, “I need to have this conversation with you, but I’m worried about how you will react.” Let them know that you’re scared for them, that you worry, but aren’t sure what to do about it. If they see you being truthful and vulnerable, it may be easier for them to admit to feeling scared and vulnerable as well.
If leading by example and showing your vulnerability isn’t working, it might be time to make a stand. Let your partner or friend know that you’ve made an appointment with a doctor or therapist, and you expect them to show up. Maybe this will work, maybe it won’t, but it sends a clear message that you need action, something needs to change. Some men need a kick in the pants.
If you’re concerned for the immediate health and safety of your loved one, don’t beat around the bush. Ask them if they’re having suicidal thoughts, or have made a plan. Ask questions and listen without criticism or judgment. Trust your instincts and get help, don’t go through this alone.
There is absolutely no shame in needing help. Our brains are complicated. The world is complicated, and it is nearly impossible to get all the way through life without a little bit of extra help and support once in a while. Don’t suffer in silence. Reach out – you may be surprised to learn just how supported you really are. You don’t need to go through this alone.