How common are male mental health issues compared to women’s issues? Are they just as common or more so?
Research shows that women are more likely than men to have a common mental health problem, and almost twice as likely to be diagnosed with anxiety disorders. However, women are generally more willing to discuss their emotional experience than men, with counsel, support and diagnosis a step in a positive direction towards recovery. Meanwhile, a stigma still surrounds men’s mental health that prevents many from seeking help. This drives an alarmingly high number to take drastic action – 75% of all suicides in England are male and it’s the biggest killer of men under 50. Currently, male rates remain three times higher than female suicide rates in the UK.
Why does it seem to be more difficult for men to address their own mental health?
From a young age, boys are taught to be ‘brave’. Evolutionarily speaking, men were protectors, which has translated into a modern stereotype that showing emotion is a sign of weakness. A common phrase in today’s society is ‘man up’ which has inherently negative connotations that being emotional makes you less of a man. Men therefore bottle up emotions which can trigger negative thought, distress and anxiety. If left untreated, this can escalate into total lack of self-worth and suicidal tendency. Instead, demonstrating emotions should be seen as a sign of strength and willingness to get help for a happier future.
What are the signs to look out for if you think your boyfriend/husband is suffering? Are there any key warning signs?
Your boyfriend or husband will act out of character. They may display anger, irritability and aggressiveness, otherwise be totally flat and struggle to show or feel positive emotions. They might lose their appetite, lack energy and either struggle to sleep or sleep too much. Due partly to this, they may experience difficulty concentrating, act restless or on edge. They may show deep sadness or hopelessness that hints at suicidal thoughts. They might adopt unhealthy habits, like turning to alcohol or smoking. Besides emotional side-effects, mental illness can manifest physically, in the form of headaches, digestive issues and discomfort.
While your partner may experience one, or all, of the above, everybody’s different. They may conceal certain behaviours or feelings. And remember, they may not even realise they’re acting out of character.
Are male mental health symptoms similar to women? I read they are more likely to suffer from anger/irritability as opposed to anxiety and fear – is this true?
Women may express their emotional pain through symptoms associated with anxiety, like becoming upset or panicky. Contrastingly, men are more likely to ‘act out’ repressed feelings, becoming irritable and angry. This is partly driven by an inability to open up about their mental state, for fear their masculinity will be questioned. These symptoms aren’t gender-specific, but I see these patterns in practice.
How to speak/communicate with a male partner who you think might be suffering – what can you say to help? What won’t help?
It’s important to generate open, relaxed conversation with your partner. Follow his lead; if he’s receptive and willing to speak frankly about how he’s feeling, listen and reassure him that he’s not alone. On a bad day he might act frustrated and defensive; this may be hurtful but try not to take it to heart. Don’t push him, as this could spark an argument and worsen feelings on both sides. Instead, give him space and be there when he’s ready.
Being with someone experiencing mental ill health can be draining and frustrating but try not to inadvertently increase their feelings of isolation by venting your own frustrations. Reminding them that you love them and that you are willing to help may give them the feeling of support they need to start taking some positive steps.
Never tell them to “get over it”. You would never say to someone with a broken leg “just walk on it”. Just because we can’t see poor mental health, doesn’t mean they aren’t suffering. Whilst that may seem a harsh example, sometimes our words can be misconstrued – even if we mean well. For example, “I know exactly what you’re going through”. Likening what they’re experiencing with a time you felt down yourself might be perceived to be trivialising their situation and could be counterproductive – especially if you’ve never had a mental health disorder.
Mental illness is indiscriminate, regardless of success, so never say “I don’t understand why you’re upset” or “you have nothing to worry about”. Whether a partner, friend or a family member who’s affected, you should avoid making harsh statements and second guessing what they’re thinking or feeling.
To what extent should you respect their privacy?
Your partner has shown real bravery if he has confided in you about how he’s feeling. He may fear that you’ll think him troubled and not want the emotional baggage of someone with a mental illness. While you might feel uncomfortable with the information and be inclined to ask the advice of friends, it’s important to respect that he trusts you with personal information that he may not wish for others to know.
How can you support yourself in the process?
Whether you’re concerned that your boyfriend or husband may be suffering with a mental illness, or they’ve confided in you, supporting, caring for them and, at times, prioritising their needs over your own, can be draining and isolating. Remember to take time for yourself. Lean on your own support networks outside of the relationship – family, friends and colleagues –arrange occasions to look forward to whilst your partner is at work or occupied with their own plans. If you need to talk to someone neutral about how you’re feeling, charities such as the Samaritans have hotlines.
What should you do if your other half is resentful and unwilling to accept he needs help?
Your partner may feel embarrassed, so therefore act defensive or unwilling to bring it to anyone else’s attention. The ‘stiff upper lip’ mentality comes into play here. If you try to raise the topic with them, make it clear that you don’t hold them responsible for their mood or behaviour. Show your support and reassure them that their situation will improve. Many people do want a chance to talk but don’t want to burden anyone around them. Just show that you care.
Where to go to find help – GP? Charity?
There are numerous treatments available to help your partner if they are dealing with a mental health problem.
If possible, broach the possibility of visiting a GP or a mental health professional. Guiding him in the right direction could be the push that he needs to accept his feelings and seek professional help. Many find a combination of different treatments works, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) with a medical professional accompanied with daily practice of mindfulness techniques in the comfort of your own home. It’s not a one-size-fits-all fix though, so it’s worth trying different solutions and encourage him not to give up if one of them isn’t right for him.
By Dr Mark Winwood, director of psychological services at AXA PPP healthcare
For more information, visit AXA PPP healthcare’s Mental Health Centre.