Help June 2015

So you think you’re a tough guy?

Why men should look after their mental health

In the UK and US, Men’s Health Week this year falls on 15–21 June. Why is there a focus on men’s health? Well, if you are a man, or are acquainted with one, you know we can be stubborn.

To give one example, a study carried out in 2010 by UK insurance firm Sheila’s Wheels, reported that the average British man drives an extra 444km a year because he refuses to ask for directions when he is lost.

For some, that attitude applies to health, too. We are fine, thanks: we don’t need to visit the doctor about that nagging cough and, if we feel blue now and then, we’ll tough it out. You are not going to see us cry.

It is well known that women live longer than men, in part as a result of genetic differences (in the propagation of the human species, men are somewhat more disposable than women), but also because men tend to have less healthy lifestyles. Men are more likely than women to smoke, drink alcohol to excess, and be overweight.

Men are also, for reasons that are not fully understood, much more likely than women to take their own lives.

According to a 2013 study by the British government’s Office of National Statistics, nearly 80% of those who committed suicide in the UK were men, while in Japan the figure was about 70%. Suicide is the leading cause of death among men aged 20–49 in the UK and 15–39 in Japan.

One theory is that men who consider suicide are more likely to be “social perfectionists”, who keenly feel pressure to please others and are sensitive to social signals of failure.

But women can be social perfectionists as well, so how does that explain the gender difference in suicide rate? Some men can, on occasion, be emotionally repressed; “Of course I’m not crying. I’ve got something in my eye”.

We men like to tough things out, but occasionally we face issues we are not equipped to handle on our own. Few men would consider trying to treat their own brain or prostate cancer, yet most are reluctant to seek help for a mental health issue, believing they can solve it themselves.

Only about 25% of those who experience mental health issues reach out for support. One of the most significant barriers is the fear of being judged negatively. This is especially true in the workplace, where many people are reluctant to show weakness.

But toughing it out has its own costs. According to the Office for National Statistics’ 2014 report Sickness Absence in the Labour Market, over 15mn workdays per year are lost to mental health issues such as stress, anxiety and depression.

In Japan, the problem is no less great. A 2013 study by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, Japan, found the cost of mental health issues to labour productivity in 2008 was estimated at ¥6.6trn.

In an ideal world, employers would not only facilitate communication and understanding about mental health issues in the workplace, but employee health and welfare would rank higher among organisational priorities than they do in most firms.

However, as we don’t live in an ideal world, we must assume responsibility for taking care of ourselves: not only our bodies, but also our minds.

Think back to the last time you read about a well known entertainer or sportsman taking his life. Your social media feeds very likely included comments such as, “How could he do that? He had everything!”

He had money and fame, perhaps, but not his health. We all feel depressed from time to time. It is as normal as feeling happy. But when feeling depressed becomes depression, it is a serious issue, and an illness. While not one that can be seen with the naked eye or diagnosed with an x-ray or an MRI, it is no less an illness.

One in four people will suffer a mental health problem at some point in their lives, and depression is the fourth most commonly suffered illness worldwide. The good news, though, is that many mental health illnesses can be treated.

Mental health care organisations such as TELL offer a wide range of support and counselling services. Invaluable advice and support can also be found among friends, family and trusted colleagues.

Five months after you broke your New Year resolution to get to the gym more often, June’s Men’s Health Week serves as a reminder to take better care of yourself. And, if you get lost, don’t be afraid to ask for help.