Tulsi van de Graaff
International Men's Day is on the 19th November and its focus – as you can guess – is on men.
Statistics tell us they could probably use a bit of attention. Right from childhood, males have more illness, more accidents and die earlier in comparison to females. A very significant and concerning mental health figure is that men also take their own lives at four times the rate of women and are less likely to reach out for psychological and medical help.
Underlying these statistics, I believe is a message that so many men have internalised which is ‘toughen up’ and ‘be a man!’. Many men feel pressure to appear strong and capable and have consistently shut down their emotions to manage these pressures and their own feelings of vulnerability. It is no surprise that men often struggle to recognise or feel their emotions.
On top of this, men often experience painful criticism when they show any ‘softness’ and become used to ‘doing it’ alone even when they feel sad, lost or alone. Reaching out necessarily requires a willingness to share that you’re not managing, that you’re vulnerable and that you need help. The statistics show us that this tendency to not reach out for medical and emotional help can lead to tragic consequences including loss of life.
Neuroscience also shows us that reaching out, talking about your emotions, and sharing your emotions with trusted others, helps you bounce back in challenging times and have a greater feeling of mental wellbeing. Men who don’t feel able to show their ‘weakness’ miss out on this as well.
And there is another dimension that Brené Brown, a social work researcher, highlights. As women, we don’t always know how to manage our experience of a man’s vulnerability. She talks about how a man approached her after a lecture she gave on shame and said, ‘My wife and daughters…they'd rather see me die on top of my white horse than watch me fall off. You say you want us to be vulnerable and real, but c'mon. You can't stand it. It makes you sick to see us like that’.
So how can men do this reaching out about their mental health and being okay with not being strong and not always having it together? How can women be okay with men showing more of who they are even when they’re showing hurt, pain, fear or that they feel lost and weak?
Here are some simple, gentle and practical beginning steps for both men and women to support men’s mental health.
What were the messages you were given about how men were supposed to be? Was it about being the strong man, the tough man, the ‘suck up your feelings and get it on with it’ man? These and any other messages could be worthy of some reflection and conversation to understand where some of your underlying values, beliefs and judgments come from.
As a man, are you aware of how you’re feeling from hour to hour, day to day? If you’ve shut these feelings down for most of your life (you’re not alone), to even think about this or feel this, can be strange and uncomfortable. Gently being aware of how you respond to challenging situations and any emotions that arise can be a good way to start.
It can also be helpful to have a conversation with your loved ones about how you’re trying to do things differently. It can be as simple as ‘I’ve realised that I shut down my emotions and don’t share much about how I’m feeling. I’m going to try to do that more and I could use your help’.
Watch your own tendency to problem-solve rather than sit and listen. Research tells us that generally men focus on solving ‘the problem’ rather than having conversations that involve discussions of feelings and emotions. Working on listening and acknowledging your own feelings and those of others can help you manage this.
For women, focus on supportive and kind interactions when a man shares any emotion, including fear and emotional pain. Use encouraging words like ‘I’m really glad you’re telling me about this’ or ‘I love you and you’re really brave putting yourself out there’ or ‘I can see this is not easy for you and you’re doing your best and I admire that’. It’s about a focus on loving the whole person as they are.
For both men and women, another benefit of sharing more of what is happening in your life and how you feel about it, is that it encourages and increases more genuine and deep ‘connection’. Connection releases this hormone called oxytocin that helps us feel good and happy. While this gradual opening up might feel weird and scary (that’s okay too), it does help you get that oxytocin wellbeing feeling that can make the world feel like a happier place and encourage better and stronger relationships.
There are also many places you can seek support. You could start with the trusted people in your life. If that doesn’t feel comfortable or you’re not sure you’ll get the right reaction, there are a whole range of other possibilities including a good counsellor. That you’re even reading this article, is a good first step. The most important thing is that you are gentle with yourself, acknowledge the work you are doing, any positive changes you’re making and that you accept you for who you are.
If you need further assistance or support you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or contact Mensline on their website mensline.org.au or on 1300 78 99 78 to talk to their counsellors at any time.