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  • Why harmful gender stereotypes surrounding men’s approaches towards their feelings need challenging

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    Summary

    This blog explores men's mental health – how men are reluctant to seek support when they are struggling, why the suicide rate is so high, what initiatives exist to encourage men to seek help and what more could be done.

    Content

    November is Men’s Health Awareness month.[1] The theme this year is men’s mental health, highlighting the high suicide rate among men. However, there remains the wider theme of men being reluctant to go to their GP when they have a health problem, which can lead to a delay in diagnosis and treatment. There are many reasons that men are reluctant to seek help, in particular for their mental health, and why the suicide rate among men is so high. There are initiatives that exist to encourage men to seek help and to break down some of the existing societal expectations; however, there is still more that could be done to address this growing crisis.

    Why are men reluctant to seek help?

    It is often the embarrassment of sharing physical concerns that means men are reluctant to seek help for health problems. This goes alongside a lack of knowledge of what signs and symptoms they should look out for regarding certain diseases; for instance, testicular cancer is the most common cancer in young UK men, yet 62% of those who are most at risk don’t know how to correctly check themselves.[1] As for mental health problems, perceived masculinity norms, such as not showing emotions, can discourage men from recognising how much they are struggling and seeking help accordingly.[2] A recent survey showed that men with ‘macho’ attitudes are more likely to have mental health problems.[3] This is largely because they believe that sharing difficult feelings is a female-only trait and that they should appear strong and in control; therefore they do not reach out for the support they need. But bottling up a problem can have devastating consequences.[4]

    Why is suicide rate high in men?

    It is well-established that significantly fewer men are diagnosed with or treated for mental health disorders compared to women.[5] Globally, one man dies by suicide every minute of every day, which is a shocking statistic, and three out of four suicides in the UK are by men.[1] This is partly because help for men who are struggling with their mental health is often offered too late, or they perhaps do not receive support early enough in their lives.[6] Men who are less well-off and living in the most deprived areas are up to 10 times more likely to die by suicide than more well-off men from affluent areas, perhaps due to more restricted access to treatment and fewer support services being available.[7] Moreover, during the coronavirus pandemic, face-to-face interactions were of course reduced,[6] which meant less positive social connections could be established to help foster good mental health. Largely though, the high suicide rate among men is linked to traditional masculinity factors, such as not talking about feelings.[2] Such deep-rooted gender stereotypes are extremely damaging. There are also few tailored support groups and often nowhere to turn to for particular groups of men, for example those who experience miscarriage, where men can release their emotions and hear stories from men in similar scenarios to help them feel less alone.

    Are there any good initiatives out there to encourage men to seek help?

    With increasing awareness of the importance of good mental health worldwide, attention has focused on the need to overcome the negative perceptions and stigma historically attached to men’s mental health issues.[5] Regarding the complex issue of suicide, it is strongly known that improving overall mental health and helping men establish better social connections can reduce the risk of suicide.[1] By 2030, the Movember charity hopes to reduce the rate of male suicide by 25%.[1] They have come up with a list of the top things that men should do to improve their health and happiness, which includes spending time with people who make them feel good, talking more and being more active.[1] Employers also have an important role to play in helping men engage with their mental health to enable them to feel able to seek support.[4]

    What more could be done?

    However, there is much more that could be done. Firstly, less well-off men who are struggling with their mental health need to be reached earlier, to help prevent them from ever reaching a crisis point.[6] Services need to facilitate meaningful connections and purposeful activity.[6] Significantly, however, changing the culture around help-seeking behaviours in men requires more gender-transformative health promotion; this would help to redefine harmful gender norms, challenge stereotypes and develop more unbiased gender roles and relationships.[2] An open and supportive culture where mental health is seen on a par with physical health will encourage more men to talk about any problems they’re experiencing.[4] As a result, this would increase men’s capacity for service engagement and hopefully avoid reaching crisis point.[5]

    Conclusion

    Awareness of men’s physical and mental health is perhaps more important than ever with the rates of male mental health struggles and suicide at an all-time high. Attitudes to mental health have changed significantly over the past few years, with many of the stigmas and taboos finally falling away, but many men still find it difficult to engage with their mental health and access support.[4] The vast majority of people who commit suicide in the UK are men, yet most of those who receive treatment for mental health challenges are women.[3] This contradiction in health service provision needs addressing, and the harmful gender stereotypes surrounding men’s approaches towards their feelings need challenging and breaking down. New ways of communicating with men need to be found so that they feel services are for them if there is any hope of reducing suicide rates.[3]

    References

    1. Men’s Health, Movember charity, (2021) [online].
    2. When silence is not a virtue: how traditional masculinities keep men from seeking mental health advice. World Health Organization, 2020. 
    3. Pollard J. Let’s hear a realistic discussion of male mental health. Men’s Health Forum, 2021.
    4. Five tips to encourage men to engage with their mental health. Reward & Employee Benefits Association (Legal & General), 2020.
    5. Culture and Health webinar series 2019 – “Man Up”: Masculinities and mental health help-seeking behaviours. World Health Organization, 2019.
    6. Samaritan's handbook. Engaging Men Earlier: A guide to service design. Samaritans, 2021.
    7. Middle-aged men and suicide. Samaritans, 2021.

    Further resources

    See the hub's Men's health area for more useful resources, blogs and research.

    About the Author

    I am a volunteer for Patient Safety Learning who loves to blog about health and care.

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