Men are taught to be problem-solvers, to seek out and overcome challenges — the ones they can see, at least. They are less likely to devote time and resources to their own mental health challenges.
However, silence about mental health is having real consequences for men and their loved ones. We can save lives by encouraging men to seek help sooner and by reducing the stigma of receiving mental health treatment. June is National Men’s Health Month, so it’s an ideal time to explore how asking for help can improve overall well-being.
Men are less likely than women to be diagnosed with mental health illnesses, but they are nearly four times as likely to die of suicide, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Also, the men who are diagnosed are less likely to have received treatment in the past year.
“The problem of men neglecting mental health is rooted in the definition of manhood they have been taught and the way they’ve seen male role models behave,” says Mike Martin, a licensed professional counselor for the UAB Medicine Addiction Recovery Program. “Unfortunately, many don’t seek help until the point of a dangerous crisis. In fact, one of the most common things I hear in therapy is, ‘I wish I had reached out sooner.’”
As a substance abuse counselor, Martin often sees the many consequences of patients’ ignoring mental health warning signs, such as deteriorating relationships, chronic overworking, social isolation, substance abuse, sexual addiction, and domestic violence. The NIMH estimates that about half of those with a substance use disorder also will experience a mental disorder with it, and vice-versa. Also, men are more likely to have a substance abuse disorder. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly three-quarters of deaths from excessive drinking are men – about 68,000 deaths each year in the U.S.
Why do men seem to have worse outcomes with mental health problems? Martin suggests that men have unique struggles that relate to their social roles, and that mental health issues may affect their emotions differently. Men often react with anger, aggression, and withdrawal rather than seeking help, he adds.
Mental Distress Isn’t Your Fault
“We’ve come a long way from being ‘Marlboro men’, but there is still some shame attached to being vulnerable,” Martin says. He notes that men often shy away from admitting to feelings of sadness, loneliness, and fear — feelings that they may associate with being weak. “Mental disorders are rooted in brain chemistry, genetics, trauma, and lifechanging events, not weakness. We men need to start seeing mental symptoms as deserving of attention and seeing therapy as a responsible first step in treating them.”
Perhaps you have concerns about your role as a father or husband, managing stress, a mid-life crisis, or increasing substance use. Martin says those are the best times to take an informal self-inventory of issues affecting your well-being. Ask yourself questions such as:
- Has my level of physical activity changed?
- Is my diet healthy?
- Am I using substances more often for stress relief?
- Have I drifted apart from important loved ones?
- Am I happy with my work situation?
- Is my free time peaceful or anxious?
The National Library of Medicine recommends a mental health screening if you are experiencing any of the following symptoms:
- Anger, irritability, or aggressiveness
- Noticeable changes in mood, energy level, or appetite
- Difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much
- Difficulty concentrating or feeling restless or on edge
- Increased worry or stress
- Misuse of alcohol and/or drugs
- Sadness or hopelessness
- Suicidal thoughts
- Feeling flat or having trouble feeling positive emotions
- Engaging in high-risk activities
- Aches, headaches, or digestive problems without a clear cause
- Obsessive thinking or compulsive behavior
- Thoughts or behaviors that interfere with your work, family, or social life
- Unusual thinking or behaviors that concern other people
The worst thing you can do, Martin says, is to “go underground” with your feelings, as they tend to simply resurface in different ways. You don’t need to be certain that you have a mental disorder to reach out for a private screening.
What Can Therapy Do?
Even when medication is prescribed, therapy with a counselor, psychiatrist, or other health professional often plays a role in effective treatment for mental disorders. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 75% of those who undergo psychotherapy experience benefits, such as positive changes in the brain and body and improvement in emotions and behaviors.
Martin says men often are skeptical of therapy in the beginning. “But if they give it time, they experience benefits far beyond the event that brought them in,” he says. “They learn strategies for better self-care and self-awareness. They learn healthy social habits to connect with others and enhance important relationships, and they learn to process grief and pain.”
This month, discuss the importance of addressing mental health with the men in your life. If necessary, encourage them to take the next step by asking for help.
“It is important not to see therapy as a last resort,” Martin says, adding that therapy builds important skills that help people cope with unforeseen challenges. “Instead, it is often akin to ‘coaching through’ whatever level of problem you do have, be it depression, overwork, or just feeling unmotivated.”
If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Line at 800-273-8255, or click here to visit its website, to have a confidential chat or get help from a counselor in your area.