Men and trends in psychological wellbeing
01 - Aug - 2022
In this article UKCP Psychotherapist Nicholas Rose considers the concerns facing men when research has shown huge increases in mental health issues. Nicholas talks about the impact of the pandemic, lockdowns, cost of living crisis and other current factors such as gender expectations, social media, relationships and suicide rates before sharing his experience of what men bring to therapy and then what can be done to protect and improve men's mental health.
First, let's look at the evidence that there has been an increase in mental health issues amongst men. Well research conducted by the mental health organisation MIND in 2019 reported that over the decade since 2009, the number of men reporting suicidal thoughts doubled to one in ten. Research conducted by the Samaritans found that financial insecurity is strongly associated with increased risk of suicide with The Mental Health Foundation reporting in October 2021 that three times as many men as women by suicide, with men aged 40-49 are most at risk.
The picture regarding a more generalised look at the mental health situation for men has also worsened, the number of men who report feeling worried or low has increased at twice the rate of women over the last decade. This means that as of 2019, 43% of men admit to feeling worried or low on a regular basis. Sadly, the number of men saying that "the things done in life are worthwhile" has also fallen. The UK's ONS (Office for National Statistics) wellbeing report showed that at the end of 2017 men were significantly less likely to say that life was worthwhile, and less likely than women to report life satisfaction and happiness.
As MIND admits, statistics on common mental health concerns, including anxiety and depression, are often thought to under report prevalence in men because symptoms are often missed. And as the Mental Health Foundation reports the behaviours through which mental health concerns can be difficult to tackle. For example, men are three times more likely than women to become dependent on alcohol and report frequent drug use. Further research points out that the situation being even worse for men in minority groups including gay, differing ethnicities and the disabled.
The impact of the coronavirus impact has yet to be fully understood but the signs for men's mental health are worrying. The Samaritans have reported that 42% of men said that pandemic restriction had a negative impact on their mental health whilst another report by the ONS said that across the general population the number of people with depressive symptoms was almost double in June 2020 to the year before.
Having been meeting with clients for twenty years, one of the things I have noticed is that despite men having been known to be far less likely to seek professional help for mental health concerns, around half of my patients have been male. My profession is dominated by female therapists, the BACP reported in 2014 that just 14% of its members were male whilst my own membership body the UKCP reported in 2016 that just 24% of its members were and I wonder about the possible correlation between the availability of male therapists and the willingness of men to seek help.
Recently on Twitter I saw a post that read "Hot right now - men in therapy" and it made me think of how things have changed since my own education about what it meant to be male as someone born in the 1960's, even then the iconic Marlboro Man image reigned supreme. And we find ourselves at a point in history where gender itself is becoming an area for conflict. Science and research are challenging the plausibility of seeing humans as either male or female to such a degree that I feel ambivalent about writing a piece specifically on men's mental health.
However, the same themes come up in my work with both my male and female patients including identity, meaning, purpose, physical health changes, loss, redundancy / occupation struggles, security, and relationships. Identity, meaning, and purpose relate to societal, community and familial expectations around gender where conflict can arise from the discrepancies that so often exist between what someone believes makes for being a good male, father, partner, and the contradictory expectations that are encountered. Meanwhile loss connecting with physical health changes connects with the struggle to find life worthwhile as life is experienced as diminished or diminishing, increasing the need for focus on finding ways to adapt and change.
It is worth speaking about finance, work, and sense of security together as struggles in these areas are often tied to a sense of self-esteem and value. Coming back to the dissonance that can exist between expectations and reality requires building resilience otherwise there can be a downward spiral into negative thoughts around failure.
Relationships are a huge area where I think men are often misunderstood and portrayed too negatively. Research shows that depression is more common and more severe amongst men who are divorced and that being single is a significant suicide trigger among men. In my recent book Better Together I explore how conflicts can be resolved by considering how different ways of being can be at the root of misunderstandings. In terms of gender a common suggestion is that men don't open up about their feelings and that they need to talk more, personally I think that there is greater complexity at play and whilst there are differences in the communication styles between genders my experience has shown me that rather than focussing on how men should communicate it is more helpful to think about how can we improve understanding in relationships.
One of the things I find particularly helpful in discussing mental health with men is the science behind how the interplay between our bodily senses, feelings and thoughts can be at the root of us holding a misunderstanding about our situation that causes psychological pain. Neuroscience is clear that our feelings alert us to something that needs attention whilst there is inevitably a time delay before our cognitive process provides us with an interpretation, the nature of feelings being that they can be powerful and yet lack clarity which can lead to situations being unhelpfully interpreted.
Giving ourselves a mental health MOT can be really valuable. One way of assessing the state of your mental health is to consider how you are in the main areas of life including your health, your sense of security, spirituality, what interests you and your relationships. How do you feel about these areas of life? What are you doing to improve things? Where are you stuck? What have you tried and what is still to be tried? If you are avoiding getting help then what is it exactly that you are avoiding? Once you know the answer to this, do some research to test your fears.
If you are concerned about your mental health either because of how you are experiencing life or because of feedback from others, then it is important to pay attention to what is troubling you.Take time to reflect on what is happening and think about what might be helpful for you, for some talking to friends and family helps, for others it's about joining with groups with shared interests, meanwhile there are a host of professional services available, GP's are much better trained in speaking about mental health concerns and of course there are a now thousands of therapists available. In thinking about finding a therapist it can be helpful to think of what you want from a therapist, many therapists share information on their gender, age and sexuality whilst also giving information on the kinds of concerns they work with.
Important: If you find yourself in a situation where there is any immediate danger to safety, then you should act. You can dial 999, go to your local Accident and Emergency Department or call the Samaritans on 116 123.
Nicholas Rose is a UKCP Psychotherapist working with adults and relationships since 2002, he consults both in person in West London and Gloucestershire and online. He is founder of a group practice, Nicholas Rose & Associates,with other highly experienced and trained psychotherapists working with clients who are often highly successful in their fields and as such understand the pressures and concerns that being successful can bring.