When boys are young they often follow their fathers around, asking endless questions and trying to be “just like Dad”.
But as boys get older, much can go unsaid — especially when it comes to struggles and challenges in their lives.
While one in four young Australians experience mental health issues, only 13 per cent of young men are likely to seek help.
Youth mental health service provider headspace is now turning to fathers to help encourage young men to get support when they need it.
“Young men ask for help differently than young women,” clinical psychologist for headspace ACT Tim McLauchlan told 666 ABC Canberra’s Drive program.
“They’re not as likely to admit they have problems; they’re not as likely to seek a conversation with someone about that when it’s going on.
“Perhaps young men may hold beliefs of weakness if they have mental health difficulties.”
It is common for young people to experience anxiety, sadness, irritability or mood swings when they face challenges.
But if these feelings persist for long periods of time or interfere with daily life, they may be part of a broader mental health issue.
“We start to worry when those signs continue on for a period of time, say a week or two, where someone is consistently feeling not themselves, or feeling upset, or moody,” Mr McLauchlan said.
“Young people might stop spending as much time with their friends, or stop doing activities that they enjoy.
“There might be changes to their sleeping patterns or to their appetite; they might drop off in their school work.
“Any of those kinds of signs, you want to make sure they know they can access support.”
Spend time together, connect through activities
Mr McLauchlan said fathers could play a vital role in identifying the early signs of mental illness and helping their sons get support.
He said most young men and their fathers desired a strong relationship but many did not know how to go about it.
“What I encourage young people and their dads to do is really just spend some time together to start with,” Mr McLauchlan said.
“Boys are pretty good at doing things, rather than talking about things.
“I encourage people to think about what activities they can do, how they can spend time together, engaging in something that really is meaningful and fun to the young person.
“That can sometimes be the stepping stone that starts rebuilding a connection or building a relationship with a dad.”
That connection, Mr McLauchlan said, was the key.
“As fathers connect with their sons — be mindful of the things that are challenging them and that are difficult in their lives,” he said.
“But also take interest in the things they succeed at and that they show pleasure in, so that you are really building that full relationship with that young person.
“Then when things are bad they may be more able to talk to their dads.”
Support for fathers who feel overwhelmed
Mr McLauchlan said some fathers found the thought of talking to their sons about sensitive issues overwhelming.
“Sometimes it feels like it might be very difficult, and if anyone has lived with an adolescent who is quite challenging and quite moody, it can sometimes be hard to find a connection and relate to them,” he said.
Mr McLauchlan said fathers who were unsure how to start a conversation could seek support from headspace.
He said sometimes just choosing a different time and place to chat could help both parties feel more relaxed.
“Talking is not necessarily one of the things they [young men] are going to be strong at doing, so setting up situations where you’re together rather than sitting down face-to-face,” he said.
“It might be starting a conversation while you are driving somewhere together.”
Find mentors, father figures
But some young men do not have a father in their lives to form a relationship with.
Mr McLauchlan said, in such circumstances, other mentors should be found.
“That might be a teacher, that might be a coach, that might be someone in a field that the young person connects with,” he said.
“We know having those meaningful, connected relationships with anybody — but particularly with another man — can be really beneficial.”
Mr McLauchlan said it could also be helpful for young men to have a range of people to turn to.
“We know if young people have someone who is generally interested in them, is passionate about them, who cares about them, that that is fundamentally protective for them,” he said.
“For some young people, as they’re developing their sense of self and identity, they’ll look to different people in their life and different roles.
“For some young men, that will be males, but that doesn’t have to always be the case.”
This article first appeared on ‘ABC’ on 22 April 2016.