Overcoming the male mental illness stigma
Depression and anxiety have become two of the most common health problems in Australia. They are also two of the most under-discussed and misunderstood topics for young adult men. Symptoms have become harder to understand yet are needed to be discussed and explored more than ever.
Beyondblue states that today 1 in 8 men will suffer from depression and an alarming 1 in 5 will experience anxiety sometime in their lives. For health issues that are statistically common, it continues to affect men as a direct result of behaviours and attitudes concurrent with social perceptions of masculinity – particularly a fear of showing weakness.
This lifestyle then impacts anxiety and depression severely, leading to fatal consequences – young men are currently 4 times more likely than young women to die by suicide. In 2012, over a quarter of deaths of males in the 20-34 year age group was due to suicide (Australian Bureau of Statistics) and 1 in 7 men between 16 and 24 experience depression or anxiety each year (SANE Australia).
Why are men suffering more?
Jeremy Little from SANE Australia explains that men are at a greater risk as they are less likely to seek medical help for the symptoms of depression or mental illness. “Men find it more difficult to talk about their feelings and are more likely to turn to risky behaviour when they are depressed,” he said.
“The pressures related to growing up – as well as societal and personal expectations – can result in, or exacerbate, these symptoms. Personal issues such as loss, stress, grief, unsettled family structure and sexuality can also contribute to the development of depression or anxiety in young men”. The stigma associated with mental illness, combined with societal expectations has become a deathly combination for vulnerable males.
Tim Tilbrook suffers from anxiety, and has recently started taking anti-depressants after struggling to stay on top of these anxieties in recent years. Mr Tilbrook believes men suffer today as they gravitate towards competitive environments in the workplace, sporting field and even some friendships. “That competitiveness can isolate someone. Guys feel afraid to come forward with issues they are having for fear of judgement or being seen as lower status compared to their friends, brother, fathers… Status can be important thing”. It is this social impact of status that prevents men from openly engaging in conversations about anxiety and depression, thus prolonging the cycle.
Understand the signs
Anxiety and depression have a variety of different symptoms, of which different people experience in different ways. It is crucial that we learn to understand the triggers and symptoms of mental illness. Those at risk of anxiety or depression can be triggered or perpetuated through a range of lifestyle factors including alcohol and drug use, traumatising life events, prolonged exposure to stress, personality traits, such as low self-esteem or other medical reasons such as a hormone imbalance.
Mr Little explains that feeling “overwhelmed by life’s pressures; unsettled, excessive or unrealistic worries; uncontrollable compulsions and obsessions; extreme sadness; loss of interest and motivation; worthlessness or guilt; or experiencing impaired thinking and concentration” are all common symptoms for young men.
“I remember telling my mum I wished time would go faster,” Mr Tilbrook recalled, “so I could fast forward to the next part of my life and not deal with what I as dealing with now. I realise it was unhealthy”. Mr Tilbrook felt constantly tired, irritable and even though he was excelling in his workplace, he struggled daily trying to balance his full time job, relationship and friendships with the overwhelming anxiety he experiences daily. He spent more time concentrating on the anxious feelings than anything else combined. He decided it was time to go to the doctor, “I realised I couldn’t do it without help”.
Start the conversation
Mr Tilbrook, like many others in the world believes that the conversation about mental illness needs to begin to change our perspectives. “The statistics are quite high, but the conversation is almost non-existent in the general public,” he said. “In reality it’s not a weakness to talk about anxiety, it’s a strength”.
If we are not talking about anxiety and depression, our social understanding of it will not change. “There have been many times I have felt, rightly or wrongly, that I couldn’t talk to my friends about the feelings I was experiencing. I was afraid that, I might be judged for it,” Mr Tilbrook explained. “At the very least thought of as weaker for succumbing to the pressures of everyday life”. By talking about anxieties you may be feeling, Mr Tilbrook believes it will let others know they are not alone, encouraging them to also seek help.
Keep the conversation going
The biggest obstacle in the fight against depression, anxiety and suicide is removing the social stigma on talking about these conditions. A shift in thinking can only occur on a societal level if we continue to talk about it. Attitudes need to change so that men experiencing feelings of anxiety or depression know that there is nothing wrong with needing help.
A study conducted by Anxiety UK has revealed that social media has perpetuated anxieties through unrealistic comparisons. Other health professionals suggest the media romanticises suicide. However, Mr Little believes that the media and social media have an important role to play in helping to reduce suicide. “Responsible media reports – highlighting the loss, grief and waste of life – and supportive online environments – offering well considered information, appropriate support and referrals for people at risk – can help communities, families and groups, to reduce distress and decrease the likelihood that suicide will be romanticised”.
Beyondblue has launched an online support service designed to help re-frame the way men think about mental illness, at www.mantherapy.org.au/. The website includes various kinds of “Man Therapy” tips, statistics and videos as the fictional Dr Brian Ironwood encourages men to “grab the bull by the balls” before “the shit hits the fan”, a valuable piece of advice for all men.
Most importantly, if you are worried about something – speak up.
Anyone who may be experiencing the symptoms of anxiety or depression should talk to their GP, confide in a trusted friend or family member, or contact a counselling service.
Crisis services to contact include Lifeline – 13 11 14 – MensLine – 1300 78 99 78 – or the SANE Helpline 1800 18 SANE (7263).