Why I Wrote a Book on Male Mental Health with My Son
Men are still less likely to seek support for mental health issues, and the rates of suicide amongst men are higher
Dr Cate Howell explains why she wrote a book on men's mental health with her son, Alex
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I think it happened like this –
“Alex, I have an idea!”
“Okay (here we go …)”
“How about you help with the next book? It’s on men’s mental health.”
And that is ‘how’ we became co-authors. The ‘why’ was a bit more complex.
I have had a long-held passion for mental health, and Alex shares that passion. Alex is a musician, but we often talk about all things psychological and have both pursued studies in this field. Alex hopes to do more in the future. We have always had a close relationship, and have both had to deal with anxiety in our lives.
Alex and I recognised how important it was for more to be done in relation to providing assistance to men, and to focus on prevention. And I knew that one of the main things that the men I had worked with had really appreciated was learning practical tools that could be used in day-to-day life. The idea of building up a toolkit of useful ideas and skills really resonated with them, and with us. And we thought it would be helpful for family members and friends too.
I knew that a male perspective and voice was needed in The Changing Man. I could have asked a professional colleague to assist, but I intuitively knew that the right person was Alex. We called the book, The Changing Man: A Mental Health Guide, because change is desperately needed to reduce the impact of mental health issues, and because men are changing and wanting more information and tools.
Alex and I both wanted to be part of the much-needed change. Hence the ‘why!’
Mental health issues in men and barriers to seeking help
Men experience a range of mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, substance-related issues and post-traumatic stress disorder. Suicide rates are three times higher than for women. We have a crisis on our hands.
Men have been opening up more about their mental health concerns, but they are still less likely than women to seek help for mental health issues. There are a number of potential reasons for this, including the general stigma that still exists in the community about mental health issues.
Equally, experiencing emotional issues might be perceived by men as being ‘weak’ or lead to feelings of vulnerability. These perceptions can also trigger unfounded shame, as mental health issues are a common occurrence in life, and it takes great courage to identify and deal with them.
Recognising mental health issues
Mental health issues may reveal themselves in a number of ways, some not so obvious. These include physical symptoms such as disturbed sleep or tiredness; emotional symptoms such as low mood or anxious feelings; cognitive symptoms such as poor concentration or memory, or pessimistic thinking; and behavioural issues such as withdrawing socially, irritability and anger, or addictions.
Men are more likely to notice the physical symptoms of emotional distress before the emotional ones, so they may not realise that their mental health is suffering. This is because they are often socialised to suppress emotion, and to be ‘strong’, no matter how they are feeling. Also, men seem to have greater difficulty than women in recognising or identifying emotions.
Twelve key tools
The following twelve key tools can help men identify and take action on any mental health issue that they may be experiencing. The aim is to build up a toolkit over time to help manage any issues.
The twelve key tools are:
- Identify the key issue(s) (e.g. stress, grief, anxiety, addiction)
- Set some goals – these need to be achievable and tackled in small steps
- See your doctor and have a check-up: this is vital as some underlying physical health issues can trigger mental health issues
- Focus on your lifestyle (e.g. healthy nutrition, moderate alcohol use, regular exercise, good quality sleep, regular relaxation or mindfulness)
- Gather information about your issue(s)
- Reach out to others (e.g. a partner, mate, GP, counsellor), and remember that reaching out is a sign of strength and courage
- Consider counselling or talking therapies
- Utilise your work and other meaningful activities
- Consider complementary therapies (e.g. supplements)
- Work on prevention (see below)
- Consider whether medication has a role (talk with your doctor regarding this)
- Practice and more practice!
Prevention refers to preventing the occurrence of an issue in the first place or preventing it from worsening or recurring. Central to this is developing a range of coping skills to aid prevention and build resilience. This refers to adapting to stress and change in life, whether related to health, employment, relationships or finances.
Prevention involves a lot of action, and may include:
- Stress management (e.g. having some time out to relax or reducing workload)
- Working on developing more optimistic thinking
- Utilising gratitude or identifying regularly what we are grateful for in life
- Putting energy into what is important or valued in life
- Investing in relationships (ensuring there is strong connection and communication)
- Practising more mindfulness or purposefully being in the moment
- Engaging in meaningful activities (e.g. time with family, work, sporting, social activities)
- Building self-belief and self-confidence
It is important for men to know where they can access support, starting with a General Practitioner and perhaps seeing a counsellor or psychologist. Online information or phone support can greatly assist. Knowing who to contact in an emergency is vital too (crisis phone lines such as The Samaritans on 116 123).
As Henry David Thoreau said: “Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves”. Sometimes we can do with some help when we feel lost emotionally or in life, or are suffering emotional distress. It is time we reduced the stigma around mental health issues in men, along with their impact on men’s lives. Alex and I hope that the information, ideas and tools provided in The Changing Man can play a valuable role in this regard.
Dr Cate Howell and Alex Barnard are the authors of The Changing Man