We need to talk about: Attitudes + Men's Health

Recently, Prince William acknowledged that he found the transition from a single man to a married man, and then on to parenthood to be a struggle (see the article here).  

That act, together with the other positive things he’s said and done to promote mental health, really helps to shine a light on mental health and wellbeing. In brief, these include:

1)     Speaking candidly and from personal experience about how “grief is the most painful experience” at a dinner for Child Bereavement UK. 

2)    Spearheading the Heads Together campaign to end stigma around mental health. 

3)   Talking about how working as an air ambulance pilot took an emotional toll on him, and how he was “steeling myself the best I can”. He also expressed concern that he could be “in a flood of tears” if he listened to live calls about children’s mental health at the YoungMinds charity. 

Props to you Prince William. We applaud your stance and your desire to bring about a shift in the way that society thinks about mental health and wellbeing issues.

And yet, there were some very ugly and stigmatising comments bandied around in response to the comments and actions of Prince William...about how he didn't know what struggle meant due to his privileged upbringing, that he was soft, and that it didn't fit the image they expected from their future leader.


We need to talk…

And therein lies the problem…not just for mental health in general, but particularly for men. With such social and cultural barriers in place, is it any wonder that men suffer poorer health outcomes?

Compared to women, men die at an earlier age, are more likely to engage in risky and unsafe behaviours, are less likely to seek help for their physical and mental health, and are more likely to complete suicide.[1],[2]

Prince William is using his position and his platform to shift some of the perspectives that keep our men at a disadvantage when it comes to looking after their own health and wellbeing, and we really need to talk about some of these attitudes.

Below are just some that we’ve seen bandied around on the Internet, and while Prince William may be royalty we can easily see these attitudes being dealt to the men in our lives.


 1.      TOUGHEN UP – YOU'RE MEANT TO BE A LEADER

Ah….that’s right…so no one in a position of leadership has ever suffered from mental health issues. Churchill and his black dog anyone? Martin Luther King Jr.? Abraham Lincoln?

What this ‘toughen up’ message does is drives any issues that anyone experiences, particularly anyone who aspires to hold a position of leadership, be it king, president, prime minister, CEO, manager, principal, coach etc. further inward.

Are we really that clueless when it comes to mental health? If an elite athlete sustained a sporting injury would we tell them to toughen up and play through the pain/injury because they’re supposed to win?

Hardly likely. We’re all too aware that this may worsen the injury and possibly lead to more permanent damage, and that wouldn't be wise because that could end a career.

In other words, we expect our athletes to be in top condition and it’s almost as if we given them permission to take time out to get back to their best. And should they feel ‘not yet 100% ’ in their recovery it’s more than okay to continue to take time out to recover. After all, it's the longevity of the individual's career that's important, right?

What about mental health issues? We may admire the courage of some athletes to put their football career on hold to fully recuperate, but do we treat those who need time off for mental health issues with derision, disbelief, or even suspicion that the ‘injuries’ aren’t even real?

Now there’s a double standard if ever we saw one.



2.      YOU HAVE NOTHING TO BE DOWN ABOUT

Alternatively known as the ‘you’re so privileged and don’t have a right to feel this way’ argument. When it comes to Prince William it’s all very well and good to sit back and cast stones at someone who may be perceived as having it all.

But what do we really know about someone? Do we know what their lot is in life? Do we know how much pressure they have been under? Do we know anything about their personal circumstances? Can we honestly say that, under the same set of circumstances, we would definitely not feel the same way?

It’s easy to pass judgement when we fail to see others’ context – their genetics, their family environment growing up, their social circle, trauma, or expectations made of them. EVERYONE has a context and a background, even if it’s not immediately visible to you so it’s helpful to bear that in mind.

With this attitude of 'You don't deserve to feel this way' it's easy to see why men push aside what they're going through and fail to seek help.


3.      SOLDIER ON; OTHERS ARE RELYING ON YOU

Everyone has a limit, and yet there can often be an expectation that men can continue to tolerate stress without reaching breaking point. Or, even if they can’t tolerate stress it’s important to just keep going because heaven forbid they let others down. Let’s examine this attitude a little bit closer…

Is it sustainable? Is it realistic that something should be able to absorb stress indefinitely without reaching critical point? A car that is driven continually without rest and a tune up is one that is headed for a breakdown, so why do we see humans differently?

Is it invalidating? What would it be like if it didn’t matter how you felt, it really didn’t count for anything? Or that even if you had drained your entire tank but, hey, you’re still expected to drive another mile? What impact does that have on an individual? Does it drive them to do better and to be better, or does it lead them to ‘check out’ because their thoughts/feelings/opinions don’t matter?

There is a bigger question that needs to be asked. Can 'the system' cope if the individual reaches breaking point? Be it the couple, the family unit, the sporting team, the work team - it's important to recognise that the impact on the individual is far-reaching, and it takes far more to recover from a breakdown than it does to channel time and energy into staying well.


4.      DEAL WITH IT ON YOUR OWN; SEEKING HELP IS A SIGN OF WEAKNESS

Once again, our nice double standard rears its ugly head – one standard for physical health and another for mental health. 

Our ideas about physical health has been very much shaped by athletes, fitness gurus, and not to mention Instagram-famous fitness pros. We soak up their advice and techniques and, if unsure as to whether we’re doing our downward dog or dead lifts correctly, we seek a coach or assistance. Then, we’re inclined to even openly share on social media just where we’re at with our progress.

But…when it comes to our mental health it’s a totally different picture altogether. While some people may willingly advertise that they’ve broken their leg, experiencing trauma following a car accident or feeling anxious in social situations are things that are talked about in hush tones, if at all. What happens when you don't know how to cope and feel like you can't seek assistance?

Mental health may be shrouded in mystery, but thankfully in recent times the secrecy of mental health and wellbeing is slowly being chipped away by the focus on mindfulness and resilience programs.

We may have a long way to go but we’re on our way – thanks in part to mental health champions like Prince William.

 
 

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REFERENCES

[1] Ricciardelli, L., Mellor, D., & McCabe, M. (2012). The quiet crisis: Challenges for men’s health in Australia. InPsych (August). https://www.psychology.org.au/inpsych/2012/august/ricciardelli/

[2] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2011). The health of Australia’s males. Cat. No. PHE 141. Canberra: AIHW. http://www.aihw.gov.au/WorkArea/DownloadAsset.aspx?id=10737419201