From Coronation Street to Stephen Fry – the issue of men’s mental health is firmly on the discussion table.
The phrase “man-up” suggests that through gender alone you should be strong enough to get through the worst of times.
But as suicide rates in young men continue to rise and health professionals express growing concerns of a male mental health crisis, how can we turn the tables and build a generation of resilient, healthier men?
Here, as part of Mental Health Awareness Week, experts from the University of Sunderland discuss why we are facing an epidemic in men’s mental health and the small but significant ways we can address it.
In recent episodes of Coronation Street, the suicide of character of Aidan Connor, played by Shayne Ward, was watched by seven million people. The programme has helped highlight the frightening fact that suicide is the biggest killer of men under the age of 45 in the UK.
Dr Helen Driscoll, a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Sunderland, said: “The fact that one of the nation’s most popular TV shows is focussing on male suicide illustrates that attention is increasingly being paid to male mental health issues. This is a positive step, but there is still a long way to go as we still often fail to realise when men are experiencing difficulties.
“In the UK, suicide is the biggest killer of men aged under 45. Many men take their own lives every single week. There are a number of reasons why young men in particular may be at risk of mental health problems and suicide.
“One factor is that men often find it difficult to admit they are experiencing mental health problems and may suffer in silence, not seeking help. One reason for this is to do with the effect of stereotypes about masculinity.
“A common view of masculinity is that men should be tough and emotionally resilient. This view of masculinity has an evolutionary origin because men who were dominant and tough often had reproductive success due to their ability to provide and protect.
“This view of masculinity is evident in modern society. It has been suggested, for example, that males grow up in a ‘hero culture’, where their role models are macho superheroes. This is, however, a limited and unrealistic view of masculinity. Even though mental health problems can affect anyone, sometimes they are mistakenly seen as conflicting with this stereotypical view of masculinity. This has two consequences. One is that men are often reluctant to seek help. The other is that often we do not recognise the extent to which men can be affected by mental health difficulties.”
Dr Driscoll believes there are other factors which are putting our young men at risk of mental health problems and suicide, including “unrealistic” images of men in the media.
“Some of these also relate to the evolutionary history of men,” she claims. “In order to attract mates in the ancestral environment, men would compete with each other to be attractive to women.
“Those who competed most successfully, for example, in terms of achieving high status within the group, tended to have the most reproductive success. In modern society this competition takes different forms. For example, men sometimes compete with each other by physical fighting, but often it may be competition for success in the workplace, or status within a group of peers.
“The problem with status however is that it is a zero-sum game – if one man achieves high status he does so at the expense of others. Losing out in competition for status or struggling to achieve it can negatively affect mental health. Added to this, whereas in the ancestral environment, men would compete within fairly small groups, now we live in a highly competitive globalised world, which means that competition for status can be very intense, and the perception of competition is exacerbated by unrealistic media images of masculinity.”
Dr Rebecca Owens, also a Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Sunderland, suggests our understanding of male mental health issues needs to be examined.
She said: “Something we often hear is that ‘men need to talk more’…maybe they do, but this is easier said than done. On the surface, we could say ‘just talk – tell me what is bothering you’. What if they don’t know? What if they can’t find the words? What if they don’t recognise these feelings? This is partly due to the entrenched notion that men do not ask for help – they do not show emotion or weakness, they must remain strong and dominant at all times.
“Research suggests that adherence to and endorsement of stoic norms of masculinity increase the risk of depression and suicide in men. An indicator of depression generally is withdrawal, but in men depression may look quite different. For example, men often ‘act out’ more when facing crises, perhaps as a result of a relationship breakdown or the loss of status (e.g. a job). They may engage in risky behaviours, for example, they may abuse drugs or alcohol, gamble, drive erratically, and have a very whimsical attitude and behave impulsively.
“Clearly, immediate help is needed to raise awareness of male psychology and mental health – it is not a bad thing to acknowledge there are gender differences in certain areas.
“This means that we can provide the right help and support as needed. One of these suggestions is that men need different forms of therapy than women do, and in some instances male-only therapy is beneficial.”
This year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, which runs until Sunday, is highlighting the issue of stress. Research has shown that two thirds of us experience a mental health problem in our lifetimes, and stress is a key factor in this.
Here, Dr Paul Innerd, Lecturer in Exercise Physiology at the University of Sunderland, suggests ways to decrease stress and tells how physical and mental wellbeing are connected.
He said: “Your mental wellbeing is essential to work productively, build good relationships and maintain healthy feelings of optimism, self-esteem, and a sense of purpose in life.
“Depression is one of the leading causes of poor health, and according to a recent poll, 74% of people have felt so stressed in the past year they have been overwhelmed or unable to cope. So what can be done?
“Most of us here in the UK lead a lifestyle which is not good for our mental health. We study or work long hours, the longest in Europe, and when we do switch off from work, that time is often spent watching TV or using electronic smartphones or tablets. This results in very low levels of physical activity and sleep – two lifestyle behaviours which are crucial for our health.
“Leading a physically active lifestyle improves emotional resilience and our ability to cope with stressful situations. Similarly, getting enough sleep is essential for maintaining good mood and warding off feelings of depression.
“Research shows you don’t have to sweat it out in the gym to improve your mental wellbeing. Simply avoid long periods of inactivity, such as sitting for over five hours, and include some kind of regular physical activity, such as walking to work.
“Improving your sleep is probably easier than you think. Certain ‘sleep stealers’ affect us all. First, avoid artificial light from electronic screens before bed. This stops the body producing a hormone called melatonin. Melatonin is released in conditions of low light or darkness, so a lack of it caused by bright light means we don’t feel sleepy.
“Second, look after your ‘sleep hygiene’. Good sleep hygiene involves having a dark, cool bedroom, taking time to relax before bed, avoiding foods like caffeine close to bed time and spending sufficient time in bed to actually get enough sleep.”
Male suicides that have drawn media attention to mental health issues in recent years include
Chris Cornell – died May 18 2017
Chester Bennington – died July 20 2017
Avicii – died April 20 2018
Verne Troyer – died April 21 2018 (suspected suicide)
Kurt Cobain – died April 5, 1994
Lil’ Chris – died March 23 2015
Robin Williams – died August 11 2014