Another critical factor related to young men’s mental health is that their symptoms don’t necessary align with our current diagnostic systems or processes.
Stigma and societal expectations related to masculinity are key factors in young men’s mental health status. Notions of strength, stoicism and invulnerability remain highly prized by our young men.
There are of course exceptions to this, but the expectations that are tacitly and explicitly reinforced to young men too often communicate that it isn’t blokey, that it isn’t manly, or that it isn’t safe to express or disclose vulnerable emotions.
While many young men are indeed able to talk openly about their emotional worlds, others find this experience foreign, difficult or confronting. Some of our environments actively prevent young men from being aware of their emotional experiences.
Another critical factor related to young men’s mental health is that their symptoms don’t necessarily align with our current diagnostic systems or processes. Rather than experiencing typical emotional distress symptoms such as feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness or tearfulness, social factors drive many young men to externalise their distress through many of the problematic behaviours listed above, such as anger, alcohol and other drug use, and risk-taking.
While these behaviours bring consequences of their own, too often they are not viewed as potential indicators of distress. Because of this, they can often be missed by our health systems, and we need to ensure GPs are better placed to recognise the presence of young men’s distress. Especially when young men present for other reasons (i.e. stress or sleep problems), or are unable to articulate their mental health needs.
National data shows that far fewer young men visit the doctor compared with young women. This signals a missed opportunity to engage young men in preventative health care — so we have to think outside the square. We need to start developing and evaluating acceptable interventions with the capacity to ‘reach in’ to the lives of young men, rather than waiting for them to visit existing services.
Without acceptable and engaging treatments for young men, opportunities for early intervention are diminished, at the same time increasing the likelihood of greater severity of illness with long-term consequence or suffering.
Engaging young men is more likely to be successful when services are co-designed with young men themselves. It is here where peer support can play a critical role in facilitating engagement, and in providing a safety net for young men experiencing mental ill-health.
Digital technologies and the world of sports also have scope to facilitate young men’s engagement. Young men tend to find gaming and sport immensely engaging. Harnessing these domains may provide clues as to what might work in future.
Re-imagining our services is a critical step. If we are to address the worrying statistics related to young men’s mental health, we have to co-design the next generation of services and interventions alongside young men, ensuring they are both effective and relevant.
Starting with young men is important — they inevitably grow into older men, becoming the role models and influencers for the next generation. Attending to their unspoken mental health needs has critical implications for the health of our society.
This piece by Simon Rice was originally published on ‘Huffpost’, 6 June 2017.