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Mental health: why men are reluctant to speak up

21 July, 2016
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Mental illness is more common than you might think. One in five (20%)  Australians aged 16-85 experience a mental illness every year, with the most common illnesses being depression, anxiety and substance abuse disorder. These forms of mental illness commonly occur in combined forms.

The onset of mental illness is typically around mid-to-late adolescence, and Australian youth (18-24 years) have the highest prevalence of mental illness than any other age group. 65% of these sufferers do not seek any treatment, with the majority being men.

The reason for this failure to report and seek help is predominantly due to stigma.

What is stigma? 

Stigma is a mark of disgrace that sets a person apart from the crowd. People suffering from stigma are generally labelled according to negative stereotypes, and to a degree are shunned from those around them.

When a person is labelled by their mental illness they are seen as part of a stereotyped group which is traditionally associated with negative connotations and assumptions. These negative attitudes create prejudice, which in turn leads to negative actions and discrimination amongst others in society. 

Three out of four Australian men report they have experienced stigma as a result of their mental illness. Experiences and feelings brought on by this stigma include: 

  • Shame
  • Blame
  • Hopelessness
  • Distress
  • Misrepresentation in the media
  • Reluctance to seek/ and or accept necessary help

Until we as a nation learn to challenge stigma surrounding mental health and become dedicated to creating a mentally healthy community that supports recovery and social inclusion, men will continue to stop short of seeking help, and will continue to needlessly suffer in silence.

Why are men in particular affected by stigma? 

Men suffer from mental health problems at very similar rates to women, yet they’re far less likely to seek professional help. They are overrepresented as a gender when considering people who act out under stress, and have significantly higher rates of suicide compared to women.

Max Birchwood, professor of youth mental health at the University of Warwick, says one of the biggest barriers is men don’t feel comfortable discussing their emotions. Honest communication is “not part of everyday discourse”, he says, because “people don’t develop the concepts of wellbeing very well in their minds”.

Our society is very good at punishing gender behavioural deviation in men. Weakness is not considered to be “masculine”. Stereotyped beliefs about masculinity also encourage men’s general lack of interest in health issues, and teaches men it’s better to “mask” your mental illness than to admit to being vulnerable. 

What happens when mental illness is left untreated?

The Australian Government has identified significant public service shortfalls which impact on the ability of Australians with mental illness to receive assistance and recover in the community. These shortfalls are producing a crisis-driven mental health system, in which people are turned away from services until they are unwell enough to warrant hospital admission. 

The private sector promotes a range of treatments and care that was, up until 2007, largely provided by psychiatrists in office-based private practice. Private sector services now also include those provided in general hospital settings, as well as those provided by general practitioners, psychologists, mental health nurses, and other allied health professionals. 

Well over half of all Australians with a mental health problem have, at some stage during their illness, received treatment and care in the private sector. However, this figure is largely made up of women.

one in four men will seek professional help for mental illness, with many men choosing to “self-medicate”. In fact, men are more than twice as likely to have substance abuse disorders, with alcohol abuse more common than drug abuse disorders. 

Untreated mental illness contributes to a significant and tragic burden of suicide in young, male Australians. In 2009 over
three-quarters (76.6%) of suicides were male, making suicide the 10th leading cause of death for males, and the 14th leading cause of death for Australians overall. In 2009, suicide accounted for 22% of male deaths aged 15-24 years.

So what can we do to encourage more men to ask for help?

Shed light on the subject 

Around the world studies, surveys, web networks, journals and newspapers are beginning to shed light on a previously shadowy subject: men’s mental health. Among their findings is the revelation that new fathers are also vulnerable to postnatal depression, young and middle-aged men are being hospitalised for schizophrenia in increasing numbers, and that no one is immune to mental illness.

Some influential men, including celebrities, sporting superstars, and entrepreneurs, have spoken up about the issue, highlighting the fact that no matter what your circumstances, mental illness can strike at any time.

Take Rugby Union star David Pocock. Speaking on Australian Story back in February, he revisited the trauma of fleeing the family’s farm in Zimbabwe in the 2000’s after war veterans violently reclaimed land from white farmers during the Robert Mugabe era. As a result of trauma and stress, the rugby legend suffered an eating disorder and his brother was hospitalised with debilitating anxiety. He spoke of feelings of guilt for being “a privileged white kid” and the fear that he was “mentally weak”. Each night he would do 450 crunches - scared that he would become fat if he didn’t. He confessed to not wanting to tell anyone about the pain he was going through, fearing others wouldn’t understand. He told himself, “Pff, there’s people way worse off. I’ve got this opportunity. I’ve got this sport, and there’s other things I can control”. 

Another role model for men is Lance “Buddy” Franklin, who recently spoke of his abrupt disappearance from the Sydney Swans line-up. He courageously withdrew from the club and sat out the entire AFL Finals to focus all his attention on his on-going battle with mental illness. Once back into pre-season training he said, “It was about getting myself right off the field and mentally preparing as best as I possibly could, and getting back here on December 1”. His actions showed men everywhere that it’s okay to take some time out to look after your mental health, no matter who you are or what you do. 

Other big names speaking out against mental health include Supernatural star Jared Padalecki, who spoke about his experience; “I was 25 years old. I had my own TV show. I had dogs that I loved and tons of friends and I was getting adoration from fans and I was happy with my work, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. I was clinically depressed”. 

Even David Beckham confesses to suffering Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). In an interview with Esquire magazine he said, “I walk into a hotel room and before I can get settled I have to unpack. Everything has to be perfect; the magazines the right way, the drawers in the right way, or whatever it is. It’s tiring. But it’s more tiring if it’s not done the right way.” 

Shed light on available services 

The number of services available to Australian men suffering from mental illness is continually growing. There are hundreds of psychotherapists and counsellors helping Australians every day in their private practices and clinics, but there are also many amazing mental health organisations publicly encouraging people to speak out and become more accepting of sufferers. 

These organisations do incredible work in reducing the stigma that surrounds mental health, and help spread accurate and helpful information about mental health issues and mental wellness. Among these are: 

Beyondblue: One of the most well-known mental health organisations in Australia, Beyondblue provides comprehensive resources related to mental health issues and disorders. It gives help to those who need it, no matter their circumstances, and works tirelessly to increase mental health awareness. 

Black Dog Institute: Founded in 2002, the Black Dog Institute was crafted to be at the forefront in diagnosis, treatment and prevention of depression and other mental health related disorders. Considered to be one of the leaders in prevention, it relies on up-to-date research and personnel expertise for its work. 

Lifeline: Lifeline is an Australian charity that aims to save lives and offer support during crisis. It provides a 24/7 information and support service that’s available to any person needing to chat to someone about what they’re feeling. 

Mental Health Australia: An organisation dedicated to educating the public about mental illness. It works to change the public’s perception about people who are mentally ill and reduce the occurrence of negative stereotyping.

 Sane Australia: Sane Australia encourages planning ahead for elderly clients whose family members are affected by mental illness. They are partly funded by donations. 

Grow: A unique organisation, Grow believes in using the experiences of individuals suffering mental health issues to educate others. Clients can learn from those who have the same problem as them, and at the same time professionals working with sufferers can learn more about a disease. 

Headspace: Headspace is a National Youth Mental Health Foundation that provides a timely intervention strategy for kids growing into adulthood experiencing mental illness. Headspace also provides support for individuals who suffer from alcohol and drug addiction. 

If you hold a hospital level of cover or packaged product you may be eligible for a CDMP Mental Health Program. For further details, please email:

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All information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only. The information provided should not be relied upon as medical advice and does not supersede or replace a consultation with a suitably qualified medical practitioner. CBHS endeavours to provide independent and complete information, and content may include information regarding services, products and procedures not covered by CBHS Health Cover policies. For full terms, click here.

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