This article discusses mental health issues affecting men.
Men and Mental Health; Conquering the Man in Me
“A man may conquer a million men in battle but one who conquers himself is, indeed, the greatest of conquerors” – Buddha
Differences in How Men and Women Face Mental Illness
Men and women both face many of the same challenges in life, we both go through divorce, the loss of loved ones, health concerns and many other trials and tribulations. And when it comes to mental health, despite popular speculation, there is no gender immunity. Depression, anxiety, eating disorders, substance abuse, PTSD, bipolar disorder, and even problems like post partum depression do not discriminate between the sexes. Unfortunately, there is a difference in the way that men and women approach these challenges and mental illnesses. Women are three times more likely to reach out for help when they are struggling than are men. Dr. Don McCreary, co-chair of the Toronto Men’s Health Network and associate editor of the International Journal of Men’s Health explains, “We have inculcated a culture in our society that men have to be tough, men have to be strong. Our society is very good at punishing gender deviation in men. Weakness is not considered to be masculine.” Add to that the stigma that mental health issues are a sign of weakness, and we have what many have referred to as a silent crisis that is literally killing us.
Every 3 hours and 20 minutes in Canada another male commits suicide. That is fifty every week and it accounts for between 75-80% of all suicides. It may surprise you to know that it is middle aged men from 40-60 that make up the bulk of that statistic. Although women attempt suicide at a rate four times higher than men, men are three times more likely to complete suicide than women. See also this article on men’s mental health.
A 1998 study on this disparity between the genders concluded this is because a man who already feels like he is inadequate or less than the societal definition of “a man” is not only less likely to seek help but is going to ensure that he “gets this right” and prove once and for all he can do something right per the Men and Suicide 2020 toolkit.
But a struggle with mental health does not always lead to suicide. It is estimated that, in Canada, one million men suffer from depression every year. And there are those that suggest this is only the tip of the iceberg. Psychiatrist and clinical professor in the department of Psychiatry at the University of British Columbia, Dr. Michael Myers points out that women have a higher emotional quotient than men meaning that men are more likely to misinterpret, or even miss altogether, the symptoms related to mental distress such as depression. He warns that the consequences of what he calls “masked depression” can be devastating. Behaviours such as hostility and irritability; verbal violence and abusiveness; drinking to excess; or womanizing, he claims, are a toxic response to a depressive feeling that the man can neither identify nor cope with.
And what of some of these maladaptive responses? Several surveys have been conducted that suggest Canadian men are three times more likely to experience dependency issues, addictions, and/or substance abuse when compared to Canadian women. To understand the impact of this statistic one must go no farther than reports by the British Columbia Coroners Service showing that, for the year 2020, males accounted for 81% of all drug overdose deaths in that province.
I could go on and could provide you with more scary statistics and more distressing diagnosis, but that is not the reason for this blog. Like the quote at the top of the page says, it is the man who can conquer himself and the demons within who is the greatest conqueror. But how do you do that when it is the man in you that you fear or dread more than anything else? Well, I would like to offer a few suggestions based on my own personal experience as a man and a psychotherapist who deals with this daily.
Help for Men with Mental Health Issues
The first thing is to remember that you are not alone. Professional athlete and movie star Dwayne, The Rock, Johnson, who has been outspoken about his own battles with mental illness said, “I found that with depression, one of the most important things you could realize is that you are not alone. You are not the first to go through it; you are not going to be the last to go through it.”. In a 2020 Movember survey, 27% of men reported that their mental health had decline since the beginning of the pandemic. A number that has risen exponentially since then. In that same survey, 34% of men reported increased feelings of loneliness. You are not flawed or somehow inadequate because of your struggles, you are human!!!!! Allowing yourself the privilege of that designation is important to removing the stigma related to this topic and enabling you to conquer that man within
Next it is important to increase your ability to recognize, name, and understand your own psychological state. For many years I made my living as a truck driver and although I rarely drive anything that requires them anymore, I keep my truck and bus licences (ABZ in Ontario) active and up to date. That means every few years going into the Ministry of Transportation and doing my written tests which includes the Road Signs Test (you can find an example here). Imagine the harm that could be caused driving a fully loaded tractor trailer and not knowing the sign for low bridge or sharp curve/tipping hazard. Well now imagine the damage you could do if you do not understand that disturbances to your sleeping pattern could be a sign of depression or that drinking more than usual may be your body’s way of dealing with anxiety.
The Warning Signs
The only way to watch for warning signs is to know what the warning signs are and what they mean. Learn the signs and be aware. Also take note of the pre-existing dangers and, when possible, do something about them. You would not expect a truck driver to head out on the road with poor brakes or bald tires because he is just looking for something to happen. Likewise, there are known risk factors that can make you more susceptible to mental health issues. These include, but are not limited to, family history, social isolation, socioeconomic background, poor eating/sleeping/exercise habits, drug and alcohol use, employment status, and many more. Just like many commercial vehicle accidents can be avoided, we can be proactive in avoiding some mental health issues if we check for pre-existing conditions and then watch for the warning signs.
The Three Pillars of Mental Health
How can we be proactive? I am glad you asked. First let me mention the three pillars of mental health, diet, exercise, and sleep. Imagine a stool that has three legs. When they are strong and in decent shape the stool works just as it is supposed to. But if any one of the three legs is compromised the whole stool falls. If any of these three pillars of mental vitality is suffering in any way, so too will your mood and your mental and physical health. However, even making minor changes for the better in any of these three pillars provides terrific returns. Think about those “You’re not yourself when you’re hungry” chocolate bar commercials. I know that it sounds too good to be true, that such simple changes could have major impacts on your mental health. But allow me to challenge you with this, make a change for the better in one or all three of these areas and see if it does not improve your life. If not, I will gladly refund your misery. Yet another thing you can do to improve your mental health is prioritizing friendships. John Donne authored the famous poem, No Man is an Island in which he says,
No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
I am not suggesting that introverts need to become extroverts, but we all need other people in our lives that encourage and build us up and we need to be that for them as well. And while you are at it, get a hobby. Something that energizes you and refills your gas tank, so you have the strength and energy to face the challenges that are certain to come your way. This might be joining a sports league, or taking up model building, mountain biking, or painting. Find the outlet that you enjoy and does not add to your stress. If nothing comes to mind immediately, try a few different things and keep trying until you find it. You will not regret it.
Help For Men with Mental Health Issues
Lastly, for this blog anyway, do not be afraid to reach out when you recognize something is not as it should be. Take full advantage of the support systems you already have around you. It might be family, it might be friends, it might be the HR department where you work. And, if you need to, reach out to a professional counselor/therapist. Speak up for yourself and keep speaking up until you get the help and support you need. This may be the hardest step of all because that man inside you will try to silence you. He will tell you that people will laugh. That others will think less of you. Fight that man. Beat him into submission. Conquer that inner man so that your outer man can thrive in every manner possible.
If you or a man you know is struggling with your mental health begin the journey to wellness by going to headsupguy.org. Or if you are in crisis and considering taking your own life, call the suicide prevention hotline at 1.833.456.4566.
Dan Wood is a Registered Psychotherapist who has a wide variety of life experience including truck driving, volunteer fire fighting, and ordained minister. If you would like to speak to Dan you can find his bio and contact info here.