We must talk about mental health

‘We must talk about mental health‘ says Peter Baker

Humen, the men’s mental health charity, has recently produced a short but very powerful video. It’s called ’20 Men 1 Question’. In it, 20 men are asked when they last cried. Many had not done so for years. Not talking about or expressing emotions, Humen suggests in the video, is linked to the high rate of suicide in men.

The number of suicides among men in the UK is very worrying. The latest government statistics show that almost 5,000 men a year kill themselves – that’s over 13 a day, on average, or more than one every two hours – and three-quarters of deaths from suicide are male. Suicide is the biggest single cause of death for men under 50 and men aged 40-54 are most at risk.

Other tell-tale signs that all is not well with many men’s mental wellbeing include their use of alcohol and drugs. Almost one man in three drinks at a level which puts them at an increased or higher rate of harm and almost 3,000 men a year die from drug poisoning in England and Wales alone. There is also a steady rise in body image problems in men, especially young men, with many addicted to exercise, misusing anabolic steroids or suffering from an eating disorder.

Recent research has revealed that it’s not just women’s mental health that can be affected by the birth of a child: up to 10% of men experience post-natal depression and up to 15% are affected by anxiety.

Despite these problems, many men are reluctant help-seekers. One survey found that more than a third of men with a mental health problem either waited more than two years or chose never to tell their friends or family about it. Those men who identify most strongly with the ‘real man’ stereotype are not only more likely to have poorer mental health they are also less likely to seek help. Other barriers include not being aware of mental health symptoms (for example, believing that someone has to be ‘hearing voices’ to be mentally unwell) or misunderstanding the nature of drug and counselling treatments.

The other side of the story is that health services have not made a big enough effort to tackle mental health problems in men. But, fortunately, this is at last starting to change. Earlier this year, the Duke of Cambridge teamed up with England manager Gareth Southgate and several football legends for a TV programme discussing men’s mental health. ‘Men are the hardest to reach audience on the subject of mental health,’ said the Duke of Cambridge, who is President of the Football Association. ‘There needs to be a turning point where we can pass the message onto men everywhere that it’s okay to talk about mental health. We have to normalise the whole conversation.’

CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) provides a free and confidential helpline and webchat for men and works to raise awareness of their issues. In 2017, Time to Change launched a 5-year campaign to encourage men and young people to be more open about mental health. Movember is funding programmes and projects that aim to improve men’s resilience with the aim of reducing the male suicide rate by 25% by 2030.

Research is also revealing how best to tackle mental health problems in men. For example, we now know that delivering services in places that feel safer, such as football or rugby clubs, can help to promote trust and reduce stigma. Language can be important, too, with many men preferring terms like ‘stress’ or ‘overloaded’ to ‘emotional’ or ‘depressed’. It can also be helpful to describe help-seeking as a show of strength, of taking control and a way of getting things back on track. High-profile sportsmen disclosing their mental health issues can generate a positive response.

But the solutions required go deeper. We need to reconsider how we bring up our boys and relieve at least some of the pressures on them to behave as men are ‘supposed’ to. They need to know that it’s okay for men sometimes to show their emotions and vulnerabilities. We must reflect on our expectations of men in the workplace and also in the home to enable them to achieve a better balance and to be more actively involved parents. And we have to provide more NHS services that men can easily access for both physical and mental health problems.

As River Hawkins, the founder of Humen, says: ‘We really need to stop just pulling people out of the river. It’s long overdue to go upstream and help to prevent people from falling in.’

Thanks to Peter Baker for this article.

Peter Baker is an independent men’s health consultant. He is also Director of Global Action on Men’s Health, an international UK-based charity that aims to shape global and national health policy and practice. Peter also led HPV Action, a coalition of over 50 professional and patient groups that successfully made the case for the UK’s national HPV vaccination programme to be extended to boys. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society for Public Health and in 2018 won its award for making an outstanding contribution to championing the public’s health. Peter sits on the editorial board of the International Journal of Men’s Social and Community Health and is a consultant for Hampshire County Council on a major pan-European men’s health project (Side-by-Side). He was Chief Executive of the Men’s Health Forum charity from 2000-12.

From 1995-99, Peter was health and fitness editor at a leading men’s magazine (Maxim) and his self-help book, Real Health for Men, was published in 2002.

Peter has run training events regularly for the Men’s Health Forum, Somerset County Council and others. Over the past three years, he has delivered over 30 men’s health awareness-raising events to employees of corporate clients, mainly in London.

Peter hosts the Men’s Health presentation for Parental Choice’s Wellbeing Programme. Help support the men working in your business by booking a session with us!

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