It’s not news that our mental health is just as important as our physical health. So then why do so many men avoid mental health support, prioritising their physique over their mental strength? We explain why we need to smash the stigma of mental health care.
We’re all familiar with the stereotype – men would apparently rather be knocking on death’s door before going to see a doctor about, well, anything really. Some might consider it a show of strength to be a bit battered from afternoons in the shed, playing contact sport, mucking about under a car bonnet or camping trips gone rogue, and man-flu is definitely a thing – just ask their partners (but don’t dare suggest a doctor). According to one report, 80% of men actually prefer house chores over health care.
Thankfully, it seems those days – like a good antibiotic – have run their course. New research from Medicare suggests that men are becoming far more proactive about seeking help when they need it. They found that over the last 12 months, 79% of men have visited a GP, a huge jump from only 43% in 2015-16 – but this only relates to physical ailments.
While these improvements are cause for optimism, research from Relationships Australia has found that men are struggling to connect emotionally and socially and create strong relationships. It probably comes as no great surprise, then, that visitation percentages by men to mental health practitioners drops to only 12%, highlighting that a large proportion of men are hesitant to address their mental health.
Men and mental health
The discussion surrounding men’s health often centres on the fact that men tend to focus more on their physical health, overlooking their mental wellbeing. This phenomenon has sparked debates about societal expectations and cultural norms – and the impact they have on men’s willingness to address their mental health challenges.
This situation is something suicide prevention charity R U OK? ambassador and celebrity chef Colin Fassnidge sees as a gendered and generational concern.
“It’s easy for a man to focus on physical health over mental health as we – men in our 40s and 50s – come from a generation of kids who thought that strong bodies were the be-all and end-all,” Fassnidge says. “A strong body shows a confident man, you were told not to cry, so all the feelings were pushed to the back and boxed up for 30 years.”
“That does absolutely no good for anyone. It’s vital to treat your brain as one of – if not the most – important organs to work on. We also need to get men to look after each other, to spot the signs and step in when they think a mate is struggling. The power of social connection can never be underestimated.”
The other major factor in the discernable preference of physical health over mental health are the tangible and observable improvements. Active work equals physical gain. Mental health, however, usually requires consistent long-term efforts to see significant improvements, making the immediate gratification over long-term investment far more attractive.
With most forms of exercise, there’s also a very low barrier to entry – that is, anyone can do it. With running and jogging, there’s the added inherent feeling of quite literally running away from a problem. Even single bouts of activity can be beneficial – just a short, 10-minute run creates a sense of achievement, triggers feel-good endorphins, and helps to crystallise your thoughts when feelings are complex.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for investing into mental health care – it’s often only noticeable in its absence, when crisis point has been reached, and it’s manifested itself into depression, anxiety, or drug and alcohol abuse.
Looking after your mental health can improve your life
While taking care of your mental health might not have the same obvious gains as hitting the gym, it’s just as fundamental in achieving holistic wellbeing and a sense of achievement.
Thanks to the rise in telehealth, online therapy, and meditation apps, such as Headspace, Calm, and the free Healthy Minds Program, managing our mental health has become more easily accessible and affordable than ever.
While work still needs to be done to end the stigma about men seeking help through mental health services, we’re starting to see change, with more men speaking about their mental health and modelling what positive masculinity looks like.
How you can help a mate
In an ideal world, men who are struggling or in crisis would feel confident and empowered enough to ask for help. A Beyond Blue report found 50% of men rarely talk about deeper personal issues with mates, but almost a third wished they could open up more. Despite this, men are more likely to talk to mates before a health professional.
R U OK? is working to encourage more opportunities for men to talk comfortably with each other and normalise checking in with someone who appears to be struggling. They created ManSpeak, a series of videos focusing on how to be a good mate in times of need.
There are plenty of excellent podcasts aimed at breaking the stigma around mental health for men. The Imperfects by Hugh van Cuylenburg, creator of The Resilience Project; the award-winning Young Blood, created by former journalist Callum McPherson and dedicated to men under 40; and the hilarious Let’s Be Frank – Men’s Mental Health Podcast, to name a few.
When our mental health is not in good shape, it can have a negative impact on our lives. We may not be able to function as well at work and our relationships may suffer. Mental health is just as important as physical health, and closely interlinked. Whether it’s your mate, father, brother or partner, encouraging men to take care of business in both areas is the best and the bravest decision.