'It's not the men in your life that counts. It's the life in your men." When actress Mae West made that comment it was meant to be a saucy innuendo, designed to raise a laugh. Today I'm turning that somewhat risque remark on its head and asking 'how are the men in your life?'
Men's mental health has become an area of increasing concern, with 3/4 deaths among men under 50 in the UK being registered as suicides (4903 in 2018) and male suicides in England and Wales at its highest for twenty years. 1/8 men are diagnosed with a common mental health problem, yet only 36% of referrals for psychological support are for men.
Many men still regard it important to be the breadwinner, protector, provider and often measure success in terms of income, possessions and status. Even hobbies and interests can have a competitive edge to them, where being the fastest, fittest, strongest brings with it the admiration and respect of others in their group.
Their early male role models may well have been strong, silent types, taught to 'be a man', not be 'a girl' and 'man up' in times of stress or difficulty. Far preferable to keep quiet rather than share any troubles or issues with family, partner or friends.
Even today the archetypical male is regularly portrayed as fit and athletic, lean and good-looking, motivated, successful, focused, coherent, driven. Yet we also want our men to be in touch with their feelings, able to communicate their emotional challenges and have a gentle side, things not every man feels able to do.
Thus worrying times can result in feeling stressed, isolated and ill-equipped. Exposing doubts and fears may risk appearing vulnerable and not in control. But equally holding back may appear hostile, reluctant or distant.
Ambition is seen as a positive trait in a man, promotion and progression often viewed as natural and desirable. But not everyone wants to be a high-achiever or pursue the next level of success. They may have various other interests and goals that inspire and motivate them too.
Today many homes are turning family life on its head by re-evaluating their priorities and discovering a less acquisitive way of life. The family, home, nature and more simple living are what matters in their happy, fulfilling lives. We're all different and need to remember that what inspires one person may turn another to despair!
Let's look at ways to support the men in your life
- Encourage regular conversations where you listen and resist the temptation to finish his sentences, second-guess or formulate your reply whilst he's speaking. By establishing easy, regular exchanges it becomes natural and comfortable to regularly talk about anything and everything, without leaving it to fester.
- Lead by example. Don't be afraid of admitting failure, uncertainty or of asking for help and ideas. By nurturing a team/family mentality it enables others to feel good about asking for input and support too, even when they've made a poor or unsuccessful decision. Sharing and asking for help becomes positive and inclusive rather than a sign of weakness.
- Be happy if he has other allies and confidantes. Don't be jealous of others in his core circle. They may have a better perspective on what's going on in specific areas of his life. Sure, you need to know if a situation's going to impact on your household, but accept that he doesn't need to share everything personal.
- He may find his 'people' in several areas of life. Friendships from school, college, university, travels, sporting interests, clubs, work and hobbies may each provide valuable contributions, opinions, support and perspectives on life. From travelling, amateur dramatics, flower arranging, politics, encourage him to be true to himself and find his interests.
- Accept that there are many versions of success. For some it's in the trappings; the house, car, status and bank balance. For others it's time in nature, family and having less work-related stress. Some manage to successfully navigate a fine line between the different areas of life, but oftentimes it's hard to truly find a balance.
- Is he experiencing self-imposed pressure to please others, to make the family proud of him? If he's struggling with not wanting to go into the family business, go to university, commit to a professional career or follow traditional relationship or lifestyle choices it can be daunting for a young man, especially when compounded by his own confusion and need for acceptance. Respect and support his wishes.
- Be ready to support him in finding an appropriate confidante; a mentor, therapist, religious leader, family doctor, teacher, someone who's in tune with him. Someone sensitive and trustworthy who's able to offer the most suitable support, without pushing too hard for 'big reveals'. Or online forums and charity phone lines may offer more anonymous options for sharing, advising or simply a listening ear.
- Encourage him to make space and time for things he enjoys and is good at. He may feel that he's not able to make significant life changes, that he's committed to certain obligations for now. Frustration buildup can sometimes be managed through introducing positive outlets, where he feels capable and appreciated. Sport, volunteering, creative hobbies can sometimes fill the void and remind him of his skills, talents and abilities. And they're far healthier options than becoming desolate, lonely or taking refuge in alcohol.
Men are under pressure from many areas of life, especially at this time. Uncertainty about future education, work or travel opportunities plus the pressure to achieve status, spending power or achieve peak fitness are all areas of potential stress. Providing support through being present, sensitive and aware are ways that the man in your life can feel accepted for who he is and gain in confidence.