Men and Mental Health

Eoin Meegan

We have all been through a very turbulent year and there is no doubt, among its other ills, Coronavirus has taken a big toll on the nation’s mental health. Being isolated, confined to the home, not being able to attend a loved one’s funerals, and even fear of getting the virus has put an extra burden on our physical and mental wellbeing. According to the World Health Organisation mental health is the single leading cause of disability in industrialised countries. While mental health affects the entire population, men and mental health is a topic sometimes shied away from. In a recent survey it was found that 31% of men do not talk to others about the state of their mental health. This is more evidence, if it’s needed, of the well documented reluctance of men to come forward and speak to someone about what they are feeling.
It is true that many men still struggle with discussing their feelings openly, even articulating what those feelings are. There are many reasons for this: the most obvious is the way men were traditionally expected to behave. In the past men’s roles were more clearly defined. They were usually the main breadwinner. They saw themselves as protectors or defenders of their family and kin. It was always men who went to war. They must be strong at any cost. To show any chink in that armour could be a weakness, it could be letting the tribe down. There was a deeply embedded, almost guttural, fear of opening up. What was clearly delineated in the past is now more nuanced.
The stigma that still surrounds mental health only serves to compound this. Perceived social stigma when internalised can result in feelings of guilt, shame, inadequacy, and general low self esteem. It’s this actual self stigma that will prevent men from looking for help, even when they want to, because of fear of how they may be judged, appraised by their peers. The inflated and false narrative of illusory masculine dominance that set the tone of hegemonic masculinity must be rejected in favour of one that treats mental issues as something that can be talked about without fear. Thankfully this is beginning to happen.
Many sports people are taking the lead in doing this: among them Cork hurler Conor Cusack who courageously opened up about his mental health issues some time back on Prime Time. Also former Cavan GAA player Alan O’Mara, founder of Real Talks, has been an outstanding voice for mental health and wellbeing: “It’s so important firstly not to be ashamed of it, and to figure out what works for you in terms of recovery” he said. Some of our leading rugby players have also come forward, such as Jack McGrath, Marcus Horan and former Munster and Ireland player Alan Quinlan, who said: “I think sport has been the shining light in mental health because there is that perception that successful sports people are strong and resilient.” Also former Ireland, Arsenal and Sunderland striker Niall Quinn has opened up about his crippling battle with depression. And the endorsement of the campaign promoting mental health following the tragic death of Harry Taafe by Ireland international and Stoke City star James McClean is another leading example. And these players aren’t just talking. In recent years a number of initiatives have been started in the sporting world to highlight the plight of mental issues.
These include the Tackle Your Feelings campaign started by the Irish Rugby Union Players’ Association, and the Gaelic Players’ Association’s We Wear More campaign. These and others like them are being rolled out to schools and aimed at 15-18 year olds, which can only be a positive thing. “When a sports role model talks about being vulnerable and the importance of looking after your mental health, it removes a stigma, a barrier,” says sports psychologist Créde Sheehy-Kelly.
And it’s not confined to the sports world. Many leading figures from business and the music industry have also come out in support of mental health, including Musician Niall Breslin ‘Bressie’, who talked candidly about his mental illness. As did Stephen Fry and Britain’s Prince Harry. And back when we were at Level-5 restrictions the Irish Local Development Network (ILDN) an umbrella group for 49 not-for-profit groups who assist communities and disadvantaged groups and individuals, stressed the importance of “Minding your Mood” by actively participating in the Government’s “Keep Well” Campaign which aims to support people and communities to mind their physical and mental health. All these actions help chip away at the outdated norms around masculinity and give men the strength and breadth to embrace their whole selves.
Mental health is related to how we think, feel, behave and interface with the world. It impacts on every facet of our lives, from our work, to our home life and the richness of our experiences with our spouses, children, and work mates. Untreated mental issues can in time develop into physical ailments. A rise in cardiovascular disease in men has been associated with both anxiety and depression, which often go hand in hand, and some studies even suggest a link between toxic masculinity and cancer. The advice from leading psychologists is that where possible we should avoid putting negative labels on certain types of behaviour, like avoid calling a particular experience a failure, or labelling some traits a weakness. Often the meaning we attach to our illness can be as relevant as the issue itself.
On average more women attempt suicide than men, but more men actually die from suicide than women (three times as many in developed countries according to a 2018 report). Another statistic, which will surprise many, is that men aged 85 and over are more likely to commit suicide than any other age category. Among the signs of mental health issues in men are excessive worry, paranoia, aggressiveness, prolonged sadness, social withdrawal, extreme swings of mood, changes in eating or sleeping patterns, and alcohol and substance abuse.
When the pandemic is long over and people start to go back to normal, whatever that will look like, mental health issues will still be with us. It was never more important to foster an open and welcoming attitude to this topic, to listen to everyone’s story with compassion and non-judgment. It all comes down to education. Instead of seeing it as a weakness to show one’s vulnerability, this must be seen as the strength it undoubtedly is.