How Can We Make it ‘Manly’ to Ask for Help?

Young hispanic man at therapy asking for help scared and amazed with open mouth for surprise, disbelief face

Men are three times more likely to die by suicide than women. And all the evidence, from research and anecdotally, suggests that’s because men don’t and won’t ask for help.

Suicidal thoughts themselves are relatively common in any population: it is estimated that 1 in 5 people have a suicidal thought in their lifetime. But that does not mean that these will be acted upon. For every successful suicide there are 20 attempts. Men appear to be more likely to act on suicidal thoughts and tend to choose a more lethal method compared to women.

Catalyst for conversations

The critical importance of people talking about mental health has been demonstrated by what’s happened to suicide levels during the pandemic. In spite of fears over isolation and the impact of health worries, data from the Office for National Statistics shows a decline in the number of suicides. Covid-19 was the source of a shared reason for worry, negative emotions became ‘normal’ for many more people, there was more active reaching out to people who were isolated. More people, men and women, have felt able to speak up and ask for help.

Gender differences in terms of thinking about and expressing feelings are deep-rooted in our culture. Studies show that parents talk differently to boys and girls: so mothers might use more emotional words with daughters, discuss sad events and issues. Overall, a smaller emotional vocabulary is programmed into boys – and as men grow older they also may often lose their emotional closeness with friends, there are even stronger expectations around demonstrating a standard kind of unemotional male persona.

To start having an impact on male suicide levels, we need a new language and way of talking about what constitutes being ‘manful’ in the 21st century. Mental health and suicide messages based around statistics alone fail to have much impact because they don’t help men understand what to do next. Identifying that three quarters of men are unable to talk about how they feel is not a call to action, or even especially instructive. At best, such messages fall into the ‘so what’ category, or, at worst, ‘man-shaming’.

What’s needed to change the narrative

Men first of all need to recognise and accept the need for support. After a life of socially-constrained emotions and denial, it may well be difficult for them to find the most helpful labels internally in order to accept what they are feeling, labels that aren’t linked to  shame and stigma. These are feelings made worse among men because they are unable to imagine a psychologically safe place in which they could choose to open up.

We need to change the narrative and reinforce what a ‘good’ man is: how he has a healthy kind of relationship to his emotions and feelings rather than an iron mastery, using words like ‘flexible’, ‘open minded’, ‘comfortable in his own skin’, ‘tender’, ‘emotional’, ‘caring’, ‘honest’, ‘loyal’, ‘compassionate’, ‘self-aware’, ‘family orientated’, ‘kind’, ‘confident’, ‘responsible’, ‘respectful’, ‘appreciative’.

In other words, a strong picture of ways of acting and behaving that are far less gender loaded and provide more instruction of how to be and how to act. The gains being how they can become a better and stronger person in their flexibility and openness, a better human rather than just a better ‘man’. So not fighting against the old, rigid bonds of ‘masculinity’.

Even the terms we use such as ‘mental health’ have become loaded, associated with ill-health, weakness and shame — a labelling that in turn becomes rejected. Just instructing men to ‘talk’ about their mental health leads to an immediate fight with male stereotypes.

Through a process of normalisation, an ongoing stream of examples from leaders, role models, story-tellers and peers we will have more opportunities to show by example what desirable behaviours and outcomes for men really look like. In practice that also means making sure there are safe spaces where men can feel confident about making their own steps down that different path.

This article was first published on LinkedIn by The Watercooler Event. 

The Watercooler Event  is a groundbreaking, free to attend conference and exhibition taking place on 25th and 26th May 2022 at Olympia in Central London. The event is designed to help employers – of all shapes and sizes – to find the right, joined-up approach to wellbeing for their organisation. The author of this article, Eugene Farrell, is chair of the UK’s Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA), www.eapa.org.uk, who are supporting The Watercooler Event as a media partner.

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