How to talk to the men in your life about mental health

·8-min read
Photo credit: Jessica Lockett | Getty Images
Photo credit: Jessica Lockett | Getty Images

By now, most people are familiar the chilling figures around male mental health: suicide is the biggest killer of men under 50 in the UK, three times as many men die by suicide than women, and men are less likely to access psychological therapies than women, according to the Mental Health Foundation.

The big question is: why? Of course, there’s no simple answer, explains Dr Jay Watts, Clinical Psychologist, Psychotherapist and CALM adviser.

“Men still struggle to speak about emotional pain. Old myths such as, ‘real men don’t cry’ linger longer in the psyche. This means that men often feel alone and hopeless - often without the same access to a language about emotions that women are more encouraged to cultivate in early life, and as a result of the way female friendship groups form," Dr Watts says.

“There are also particular things that elevate the risk for men specifically, such as economic instability and unemployment. This is because they poke the ‘men should be breadwinners’ trope,” she adds.

“For a large part of my life, I felt as though I had to carry my burdens alone, and if I wasn't able to deal with whatever burdens I had, it was a failing on my part, rather than not having the support that I needed,” says JJ Bola, 34, Writer, Poet and Mental Health Social Worker. “For a long time I did try to do that but it had negative effects on me.”

JJ feels his experience is largely a reflection of the expectations toxic masculinity places on boys on men. “You have to be strong, stoic and logical - don't show emotion and fear.”

Male mental health:
Where does the stigma come from?

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

A lot of the stigma comes from the idea that talking about struggling is somehow not masculine – something both Dr Watts and JJ see first hand.

“In a patriarchal society, on the surface, it looks like we're doing well, with men in positions of power, earning more, and having male privilege. And there are many things that we benefit from, but actually, on the other side there are lots of things that we are really struggling with,” JJ says.

He lists a range of issues that affect men disproportionately - substance abuse, homelessness and suicide - as well the problem of male aggression and gender-based violence.

“We’re more comfortable seeing two men fight than we are seeing two men love,” he says.

“Most men still seek help saying something like: ‘I don’t want to live so my girlfriend/mum/wife thought I should come and see you.’ Owning that need can feel like showing too much vulnerability,” Dr Watts says. “This is changing generationally but the progress we were making has been thwarted by COVID's disastrous effect on mental health.” It's really important, therefore, to associate help-seeking with positive, potent masculinities. “Strength rather than weakness, if you will.”

“Few things in life are as powerful as a man talking openly about his vulnerabilities,” she adds.

Do men present ill mental health symptoms differently than women?

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

A big part of the crisis around male mental health is how pervasive gender expectations can be in stopping men from talking about how they’re truly feeling. Aside from that, are symptoms of ill mental health different between men and women?

“The ways that we raise boys and girls differently encourages slightly different ways of feeling and expressing pain, but these are levelling somewhat as the world becomes more equal,” Dr Watts says, adding: “There are more similarities than differences.”

“Women are slightly more likely to internalise emotional pain whilst men are more likely to externalise it. So, for example, women are more likely to self-harm by cutting their arms or legs, whilst men are more likely to do so by punching a wall in frustration or getting into fights,” Dr Watts explains.

Men are also slightly more likely to feel absolutely nothing when they’re depressed, she explains, which can result in missed diagnosis.

“As we still associate depression with sadness, this alienating nothingness can get missed as a key symptom and risk factor,” she says.

Male mental health:
How to support the men in your life

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

It’s, of course, not true for all, but often women have more routine conversations about feelings than men. With typically less opportunity to open up within male friendship circles, it can be helpful and important for women to encourage regular, everyday time and space for chats about emotions.

“All the evidence says that men do want to talk about mental health, so please, ask,” says Dr Watts on how women can broach the topic with the men in their lives.

Although, she adds, if this is new territory, expect a knee-jerk reaction along the lines of, ‘I’m fine’. “This might be true but it is also a classic defence when asked to speak about feelings,” Dr Watts advises.

Open questions like: ‘How are you feeling at the moment’ tend to be better than yes or no questions. “Try to frame the conversation as something that you are going to have regularly and ask about suicidal ideation if you have even the slightest concern,” Dr Watts says.

“Often, men feel pressure to maintain that strong image or that status of everything being held together. Whether it's privately or publicly, a lot of men feel quite tied to that responsibility. I think it's important to communicate clearly that no matter how vulnerable or how down they might be, nothing is going to change in terms of how you see them and this is an open space for them to be who they are,” JJ says.

For JJ, reading and journaling were important parts of his journey to better mental health, and he recommends other men trying to find outlets for their emotions.

“If you're the guy in the friendship group who’s a bit more aware about this situation, try to organise something simple like walking and talking or sitting down at a café to chat, so not everything's revolved around masculine action. I think a lot of the times, men are socialised into doing rather than being – and we do need to take some time just to be, to reflect and actually process how we're feeling rather than block [feelings] out.”

Male mental health: What not to say

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

If you’re someone who spends a lot of time processing your emotions and talking them through with others, resist the temptation to start telling your boyfriend, brother or dad what you think his problems might be, as this can make men feel like a failure if they don’t act on the advice, says Dr Watts. Instead, give the person time to find the words themselves with patient listening.

“Contrary to the stereotypes, men are just as emotional and empathic as women. However, as with starting up a rusty motor that hasn’t been used for a while, patience can be key if a man isn’t used to talking about her inner world," she advises.

JJ adds that it’s important to avoid trying to ‘fix’ other people. “If you make suggestions, [frame it as something that] could be of interest to them, not ‘This is something for you to fix your mental health,’ he advises. “It's hard for the person who's in that situation to see what the problem is if they haven't been empowered to be able to identify it for themselves,” he says. “Everyone’s on their journey, everyone's processing at different speeds. Some things might come sooner for some people, some things might come later.

Dr Watts notes you should also be careful of negative comparison with other men in your network or the public eye who are more open about mental health, as this can make the person feel like there’s: ‘Yet another thing I am failing at’.

Talking is an important step, but it’s important to think beyond that, too.

“We all recognise we need to speak about this more and check in on our friends. But what's the next step after that?” JJ asks.

“In spite of how difficult things might be [due to funding cuts], there are services out there. Mind, CALM and The Book of Man are all great resources out there that you can also access anonymously. It’s okay to seek support from them and I'd encourage anyone to do so.”

Mask off: Masculinity Redefined by JJ Bola is out now. JJ's upcoming novel, The Selfless Act of Breathing is out in September.

If you’re struggling, talk to CALM on 0800 58 58 58 or through our webchat. Our trained helpline staff are available from 5pm to midnight every day to provide practical support and advice. No matter who you are or what you're going through, It’s free, anonymous and confidential. Or for more information head to thecalmzone.net.

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