Men’s Heads and Hearts

In 1943, General Patton visited hospitals in war-time Sicily and saw soldiers suffering from a common form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that was sometimes called ‘Shell Shock’ or ‘Battle Fatigue’.

The general slapped the patients. “I’m not going to have cowards in my army!” Like many people at the time, he thought mental illness was due to a ‘lack of moral fibre’ and that it was a character flaw. In World War I, such men were sometimes shot as deserters. Thank goodness our culture is starting to show the same sort of compassion to people with mental health problems as it does to people with physical health problems. It is far from perfect, but a lot less people today would consider mental illness to be a moral failure. It is a medical issue and so mocking and condemnation is certainly not appropriate.

But men, themselves, still cling to some ideas that are well past their sell-by date. The most dangerous misbelief is that any emotional weakness is embarrassing and must be concealed. “Harden up! Pull yourself together!” They still believe the old myth that somehow their depression or anxiety is a sign of unmanly failure. As a result, men are much slower to seek help for their mental issues, often suffering far more and for far longer than they need to, because they are ashamed. Men are far more likely to withdraw, or self-medicate with alcohol or drugs (often making things far worse), and men are much more likely to take their own lives. Some men literally die rather than seek help for something that can usually be helped.

Some other aspects of male culture that work against good mental health are:

  • Men measure their self-worth in terms of achievement so they often work too hard, failing to rest and relax
  • Men drink more alcohol. Mental and physical health both decline as alcohol intake increases
  • Men can be more isolated. A circle of ‘mates’ is great, but it is much more valuable to have a few deeply trusted close friends.
  • They have a fear and mistrust of doctors.
  • Men are private: they seldom talk to each other about any health issues, let alone mental health.

What can we do to help the men in our lives? Here are some tips:

  • Share stories about mental health, especially good stories of recovery.
  • Let’s watch our attitudes and language. If someone hears a hint of mocking or derision when we talk about others with mental health problems, it could make  them even more determined to conceal their own struggles.
  • Celebrate and support the campaigns that urge men to seek help.
  • Ask in a caring way how our friends are doing, and then don’t retreat if they share some pain.
  • Be supportive of our mates if we know they have been going through a tough time.
  • Make it easy as possible for people to make the changes and to get the help they need to recover.
  • Watch each other: are signs of poor mental health becoming evident even though they are trying to conceal it? Gently but firmly nudge men towards the help that is available. (And this applies to getting help for ourselves as well!)

Some time ago I was helping with the clean-up after hurricane flooding in Australia. Amidst the destruction and mess, it was truly heart-warming to hear muddy, exhausted men checking on each other. “Are you alright, mate?” I heard men were sharing with each other in a very unguarded way about their loss, stress, sadness and sleep problems. And I heard them being grateful that someone asked. I thought, “This is new, and this is healthy. They will get through this with their mates.” Times are changing for men. They are getting better.