Men’s mental health | The power of conversation

The power of conversation

By Tracey Ward, Head of Business Development & Marketing at Generali UK Employee Benefits

Statistics on men’s mental health and suicide abound but can only tell us so much. They can only tell us about the mental health problems that been reported. Many cases probably go undiagnosed. The cultural shift required to tackle this problem – to break the stigma and encourage men to talk – is happening, says Oli Vikse, Project Development Champion at Andy’s Man Club, a free-to-attend, nationwide, peer to peer support group. But there’s still so much more that can be done.

“There’s always been this image that the man has to be this tough head of the household and not talk about problems,” says Oli. “But that’s not the case. There are lots of avenues available now – both in and out of the workplace. It’s dangerous when men think they need to shoulder it alone.”

Although statistics have limitations, they do help provide an indicator.

A snapshot of men’s mental health

Three times as many men than women die by suicide. And men aged 40 to 49 have the highest suicide rates in the UK. It’s the largest cause of death for men under the age of 50. Men report lower levels of life satisfaction than women, according to the government’s national wellbeing survey. And men are less likely to access psychological therapies than women: only 36% of referrals to NHS talking therapies are for men. These insights come the Mental Health Foundation.

From a Group Risk industry perspective, we know that at least 2.7% of deaths that were insured in 2021 were as a result of suicide. And although the percentage hasn’t changed that much since 2015, it’s worth noting that more and more claims are now paid without the reason for death being known - given the new online death confirmation tools / streamlined processes being used by many insurers. The rate, therefore, is inevitably higher than this.

Current and future pressures

With the rise in remote and hybrid working and the increased risk of isolation and loneliness, together with the economic climate and the many uncertainties being faced, the case is strong for workplace wellbeing strategies to include a specific focus on men’s mental health and the risk of suicide and suicidal thoughts.

Everyone’s needs are, of course, different. So there is no one-stop-shop way of providing such support. That said, there should be one shared goal of whatever support and services are put in place; to encourage men to have a conversation.

Traditional gender stereotypes are deeply ingrained in society, as mentioned earlier, and have ensured that men often find it harder to reach out for help and open up. “This reluctance comes from three places,” explains Oli. “Firstly, a sense that sharing problems is a sign of weakness. Secondly, men feel they should be able to handle things themselves and don’t want to be a burden – we don’t want to pass problems on to others. And, thirdly, the embarrassment factor.”

It's for these reasons that men are more likely to turn to potentially harmful coping methods, such as drugs or alcohol, rather than talk to friends or family. However, according to the Mental Health Foundation, research suggests that men will access help that meets their preferences and is easy to access, meaningful and engaging.

Via the workplace, this might involve – just by way of example – any or all of the following:

  • Supportive work environment – where leadership communication and behaviours help normalise openness and honesty at work at all levels; whether onsite or remote working.

  • Peer-to-peer support in the community – such as Andy’s Man Club. In such groups – either one of the face to face groups, or online - there is no professional / no counsellor: “just a place for guys to come together and talk about anything,” says Oli. “A non-judgmental environment for sharing experiences and ideas and hopefully getting back on track.”

  • Professional support – such as access to Employee Assistance Programmes (day to day support for the individual, but also for parents, managers, colleagues – anyone who is worried about a loved one or colleague). Also, Virtual GP services and specialist psychological support to help with early intervention and rehabilitation; all of which is probably already available to those employers / employees that have Group Income Protection or Group Private Medical Insurance in place.

  • Emergency services – of course, if you believe that someone is in imminent danger, call the emergency services or take them to your nearest accident and emergency hospital service. You can also call Samaritans on 116 123.

Oli adds that sharing stories with others can represent one of the most powerful ways of getting the message across that it’s not a weakness, burden or embarrassment to share problems.

Case study

With that in mind, let’s end with Oli’s story, in his own words:

“I got into Andy’s Man Club in 2016 after a relationship breakdown. I found myself homeless for a few months and, during that time, I lost two of my friends – one to suicide and one to meningitis.

I kept everything bottled up and none of it came to the surface until I got my own flat and the loneliness hit me. I started going to the pub until late most nights and getting up late for work. I ended up hungover and regularly absent. But I never said I was struggling with my mental health when I phoned in sick; I just said I had a stomach bug or a cold or something.

“Eventually, I was given a final written warning. I spoke with my line manager who had noticed my behaviour had really changed and advised me to see my GP, which I did. I was signed off work for six weeks with depression.

“During that time, I attended my first Andy’s Man Club meeting. I was really nervous but through listening to others share their stories I managed to open up.

“I felt a few inches taller leaving that meeting, just through talking.

“I ended up voluntarily running the flagship group for Andy’s Man Club while I was still working. and I’m now a full-time employee for the charity.

“My life has taken a massive turnaround from where I was. I’m now in the process of buying my own home. I see my son regularly now and I’ve got a daughter with my new partner.

“Whether it’s at an Andy’s Man Club meeting, a family member, colleague or doctor, I think the top thing you can do to help someone who might be struggling is just to reach out and have a conversation.

“When you’re struggling, so many thoughts go around in your head and there’s no time to process each one. But when you have a conversation, you can start to slow each thought down. Just forming sentences slows down those thoughts and you can begin to put the pieces of the puzzle back together.

“If you can do that in an environment where people understand how you’re feeling, that’s even better.”

This article was following a recent webinar, hosted by General UK and featuring Oli from Andy’s Man Club, alongside Robin Pickard, Managing Director of Form Health, a specialist in Vocational Rehabilitation. For free access to the recording, including an employee facing outtake – entitled ‘If you do nothing else, do this’ – please email [email protected]

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All information contained herein represents the views and opinions of the author as at the date of writing and is provided for general information only. Nothing herein constitutes or is intended to constitute financial or other form of advice and no individual should rely upon the information provided in making a specific investment decision without first seeking independent professional advice.

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