Facing up to male mental health problems

We find it hard to think of men as vulnerable, and their psychological suffering is often overlooked
Men's Mental Health Week

Men’s Mental Health Week aims to understand the psychological and social problems men experience and offer support. Photograph: Gregory Bull/AP

Over the past 30 years three to four times more men have taken their own lives than women, and at no point during this period has the rate of suicide in women been higher than that of men. This raises questions about why we haven’t been thinking about the psychological needs of men and boys sooner.

Men’s Health Week aims to raise awareness of this and other mental health problems that men face. Traditionally, men are reluctant to seek help, have high levels of isolation, high rates of drug and alcohol misuse, are at greater risk of homelessness, display more externalised and destructive behaviours, and are more involved with the criminal justice system. Underlying many of these experiences are complex psychological problems, but rarely do we empathise with their causes.

Men are more often portrayed as villains, perpetrators and the causes of problems, and we can become too focused on the externalisation of mental distress in men through alcohol abuse, aggression and other anti-social behaviours. Such behaviours also attract a punitive response from services.

If these behaviours are the result of unacknowledged complex traumatic backgrounds and mental health difficulties, a punitive response is only likely to make a bad situation worse. Anger, one of the few sanctioned male emotions can often indicate that someone is feeling bad about themselves, seems to have been excluded from mental health services. It is not surprising that 90% of the male prison population is estimated to have mental health problems. A more empathic approach to understanding the psychological wellbeing of men and boys is needed.

It seems more difficult to think of men as victims and vulnerable. Men, too, can experience physical and sexual abuse, domestic violence, and violence and abuse from other men. They suffer from adversity and experience psychological and emotional difficulties regardless of how physically strong or financially well off they are. While men are advantaged in some respects, they are at greater risk of nearly all major illnesses and injuries, as well as suicide. We also ask men to be protectors and providers for others and send them off to fight wars in far greater numbers, to work down mines and in other dangerous environments, and to stand last in the queue (or not even get in the queue) for help and support.

Some people say that men are in crisis. If this is the case, Men’s Minds Matter aims to respond to this crisis through understanding the psychological and social problems men experience and offering support that intervenes directly with the problems while building on the strengths that already exist. Men’s Minds Matter is a not-for-profit public health initiative, and we have been working closely with other psychologists, professionals and organisations to develop ideas on how to improve the psychological wellbeing of men and boys.

Men’s Minds Matter will be launching the Men’s Institute as the platform from which we aim to develop a national network of peer support groups, psychological therapy groups, and community-based initiatives that reduce isolation, build community cohesiveness, promote active engagement and reduce the alarmingly high suicide rates in men.

Dr Luke Sullivan is director of Men’s Minds Matter and works as a chartered clinical psychologist.


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