Health June 2018

Toxic Masculinity

Keeping your mind healthy during Men’s Health Month

Speaking of mental health in any context can be challenging. Nearly everyone has been touched by a mental health issue in some way, and were it affecting a family member, work colleague or friend, problems related to mental health are pervasive in our society.

One of the greatest challenges someone faces in a mental health context is finding help. Many people live for years before they get connected to services that address their needs in this area, and that can be many years after they have come to realise and admit that they need support.

The issues are compounded for men since, statistically, they are much less likely to seek the help they feel they need.

So why are men so reticent about reaching out and seeking help?

There are a myriad of reasons, many of which, no doubt, are occurring to you as you read this. They include fear of vulnerability, a perceived need to be seen as being strong (whatever that term might mean), and pressure to push through obstacles and succeed.

These reasons reflect something that we as a society have created and fostered: a toxic masculinity. Accordingly, men have to be seen as tough and strong, meaning there should be no emotional expression or display of pain, and they should be entirely self-sufficient. This is the code that allows men to be hyper-violent, sexualised, and isolated in ways that, ultimately, exacerbate all other health and relational issues men experience.

It is this code that keeps men from feeling sufficiently vulnerable—or weak—to seek help. In short, men are being held hostage by society’s and their own warped perceptions of masculinity, and it is literally killing them.

Suffering in silence
Men’s mental health truly is a silent crisis, with four out of five suicides being committed by men. But mental health is about much more than suicide or the tendency to commit suicide; two of the most prevalent mental health conditions are depression and anxiety disorder.

The statistically higher rate of substance abuse and lower rate of mental health service utilisation among men show that, rather than reaching out for help, men are more likely to suffer in silence.

How can you help someone who is in denial about needing support, or who believes that the very act of reaching out is contradictory to their identity? This is the question that I, as a mental health professional, am asked the most. It usually comes from a concerned partner, family member or workplace manager. Typically, these are the people who observe behavioural changes in an individual long before the individual is aware that there are issues.

My general advice is simple—know the signs and symptoms of what your loved one is going through, and listen to them without an agenda or judgement.

This requires two things. The first is education. No one expects you to be a mental health pro­fessional and know dozens of terms and diagnostic criteria. Just think of the person about whom you are concerned. Note the things they are doing or saying that concern you. Are they talking more about death? Have they started drinking more often? Have they lost a lot of weight? Maybe they seem less energetic and often cancel their plans with you and others. These things may not be related to anything more serious, but they could be symptoms of depression, anxiety and other health issues.

If something concerns you, talk about it. If you are afraid of how to talk about the issue, remember, you are coming from a place of love and concern, not criticism.

This leads to the second point—how do we listen? Often, people hear with the intention of answering, not with the intention of listening and understanding.

I often recommend the 70–30 principle when talking to someone about serious personal matters. Listen and let them speak for 70% of the conversation. For the other 30% of the time, use it to paraphrase what they said and to make sure you understand them correctly, before asking an open-ended question. This allows the person to be open about their experience and share in a deeper way. For a person who has been conditioned to bottle up everything or to just “get on with it”, opening up can be extremely hard. Patience and compassion are required.

If you are a man and wondering what you can do to look out for yourself, my advice is the same. Educate yourself around the symptoms of common mental health conditions, and listen to yourself. Suffering with mental health can be exhausting and painful, but it needn’t be. If you believe you could benefit from support, talk to someone you trust, or access the professional mental health services that are readily available.

TELL offers confidential, professional counselling in English with trained therapists who can help you deal with whatever it is you might be experiencing.