How To Talk To Young Men About Mental Health
Alex Peak, who works with Papyrus, the charity preventing suicide in young people, writes about how to engage young men in conversations about their mental health.
If mental health feels like an all-too-often discussed topic, you may well be right, but that’s because it needs to be. The public dialogue around young men and mental health has taken leaps forward in recent years, with public figures such as Tyson Fury, Alastair Campbell and Prince Harry openly talking about their mental health struggles. However, statistics show that three quarters of all suicides in the UK are men and one study found that 28% of men don’t seek any help for their mental health issues, compared to 19% of women, and suicide is the leading cause of death in men under 50 years old. Which is why it is paramount to continue breaking the stigma surrounding mental health and suicide around men and boys – as well as tackling the issues around education and addiction that are interwoven with many experiences of mental health challenges.
My experience of mental health education and support in school was far from positive, but as of September 2020, mental health and wellbeing is now a compulsory part of the curriculum in both primary and secondary schools moving forward – a huge step forward to initiate a positive and open dialogue around mental health. This is especially relevant in the UK since 7% of teens have attempted suicide by the age of seventeen and one in four have admitted to self harm, behaviour that can quickly become an addiction. However, RHSE (Relationships, Health and Sex Education) is not compulsory for Sixth Form students, 16-19 academies or colleges and universities, which is a missed opportunity to broaden knowledge. Getting children to open up however works for them, actively listening to what they’re feeling and showing empathy; all these factors will go a long way to getting the best treatment.
Mental health issues are often linked to alcoholism or other addictive behaviour, so it’s no surprise that last year, as mental health issues became more prevalent due to the Covid pandemic, deaths from alcohol abuse went up by 20% to 7,423, the worst since 2001. As anxiety and a feeling of isolation contribute to an inability to ask for help, it’s crucial that education and financial resources around alcohol abuse are coupled with the same for mental health conditions. From a legislative perspective, banning sales of cheap alcohol and putting a minimum price per unit of alcohol would be a great place to start.
How we communicate to those who are suffering with mental illness is vital – dangerous phrases like ‘committing suicide’ or ‘successful suicide’ are still part of our vocabulary. On top of this, masculine rhetoric such as ‘man up’ and ‘grow a pair’ is damaging, derogatory and has no place in the post-#MeToo world.
So how to broach these difficult topics? Starting the conversation by getting straight to the heart of the matter is critical. Ask directly if that person is thinking of suicide and allow them to articulate as best they can – this shows we are understanding. Lines like these can be a huge benefit;
“Take your time and tell me what’s happening for you at the moment.”
“I am so sorry you’re feeling this way. Can you tell me more about how you are feeling?”
“It’s hard and scary to talk about suicide but take your time and I will listen.”
Once that initial discussion is concluded, give them a list of organisations they can call on for support and guidance e.g. PAPYRUS HOPELineUK, Samaritans, Mind.org.UK among others. We can reassure whoever we’re talking to that we are on their side and we are readily available if they want further support; that is acknowledging and legitimising what that person is going through. From this initial conversation, a support network can grow for that person in need.
Outside of individual conversations, it’s important to educate ourselves on the correct language to be using, the statistics around mental health and what we can do to help. One saying I find particularly striking is “bring love to the fight” – starting conversations or constructing our thoughts with this attitude brings a level of compassion and understanding from the get-go.
The bigger issue at play here is toxic masculinity – which merits a whole article in itself. I have certainly felt that there is an unwritten male rulebook of what interests we should have, how we should behave, when we show emotions or not and playing up to an image of machismo at times. While that ‘rulebook’ isn’t on fire, it’s definitely smoking and change is happening.
What is crucial is that more men and boys continue to tell stories of their own struggles, as with every story we hear creates another dent in this toxic attitude. And let’s face reality; if all men were the same, the world around us would be a horribly dull place to live. Let’s embrace differences, open up our realms of acceptance and gain self-awareness so we can understand what we’re still contributing to the stigma. There is so much to gain by taking the time and making the effort to understand and put ourselves in a position of compassion from the start.
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