There is a stifling silence around men’s mental health, writes Natassia Chrysanthos.
In 2015, men accounted for 75 per cent of suicides in Australia. This sentiment didn’t sit right with Zac Seidler, a PhD candidate in psychology at the University of Sydney. His PhD project ‘Man Island’ is his attempt help change the statistics.
Seidler’s current research focuses on how hegemonic masculinity is connected to men’s depression and the way men interact with therapy. “The main ideas that surround hegemonic masculinity are stoicism, strength, silence, power, and being the provider,” Seidler says. Masculinity confers social advantage and dominance, yet conformity to masculine norms often has a threefold effect on men’s depression: in their symptoms, help-seeking and management. In 1995, psychologists Good and Wood named this the ‘double jeopardy’ of masculinity. “It’s the idea that men are thrown into the deep,” Seidler explains. “Societal norms do not allow them to express anything properly, leading to depression; not knowing they have depression because they can’t express it, and then not seeking help for it. It’s both leading to further depression and then stopping them from accessing the system.”
Men won’t always appear to have symptoms typically ascribed to depression such as crying, fatigue or sadness. Instead, they’ll often present as physically ill – as stressed, for example – and as they frequently lack the vocabulary to talk about their emotions in a culture that emphasises ‘sucking it up’ as integral to masculinity, “they slip through the cracks.” According to Seidler: “They go to see a GP, but they don’t get the help they need.” The idea of ‘masculine depression’ has emerged in psychology more recently to recognise the fact that externalizing symptoms like anger, stress, violence, addiction and alcoholism may also be symptoms of depression. “It’s still depression, it’s just different,” Seidler says. “I think [masculine depression] is pretty worthy of consideration,” he adds.
Masculinity means men only try therapy as a last resort once they’ve depleted existing resources. This arises because seeking help is seen as effeminate and contrary to the ideals of independence that are enshrined in masculinity. Consequently, men tend to minimise the magnitude of their need. “When they do present, it’s an emergency,” says Seidler. “There’s a constant pullback to be like ‘no, it’s fine, I can deal with this on my own,’ rather than seeing strength in dealing with it and getting help.”
In line with this, suicide can be seen as a brave option to manage depression and seize control. Male suicide rates in Australia are staggering: a construction worker kills himself every two days in Australia. People who work in trades suffer particularly high rates of mental illness owing to the cut-throat nature of their jobs. “It’s the idea that you work on one job and then it’s going to be gone,” Seidler says, “and it’s all around ‘if I don’t have the money then I can’t provide for my wife and that’s my job, that’s what I’m here for.’” Rural environments are also dangerous, according to Seidler, due to social isolation, precarious work and unusual working hours.
The imperative to contribute to the field of men’s mental health is evidently clear. “Rather than trying to get people in to the therapist –because BeyondBlue, Headspace and everyone under the sun is trying to do that – I need to make therapy better so that when guys do get in they are engaged and don’t drop out,” Seidler says. His current research entails sitting down with men who have been in therapy for depression and understanding the best ways to make therapy work for them.
So far, he’s gotten an insight into elements of therapy that are more successful for men. “Behavioural interventions, so CBT for instance, which are problem solving, action focused and goal-oriented. Those three terms come out everywhere as what men want,” Seidler says. “They need practical outcomes, because that’s in line with masculinity and making gains. That’s why they love prescriptions, because it’s a quick fix, and they love
having things to go and do.
“But in saying that, there are lots of men who do want to sit there and have a long chat,” Seidler says. He is also conscious to note that masculine qualities don’t only exist in gendered binaries. “This type of stoicism is in many women, and many women don’t engage in therapy full stop,” Seidler says. “It just so happens that the externalising symptoms in guys are the really dangerous ones – the alcoholism, the addictive stuff, the violence – and the fact that the suicide rate is so high in men. That’s why I’m focusing on it, but hopefully I can gain insight that will be helpful for women as well.”
This piece by Natassia Chrysanthos was first seen on ‘Honi Soit’ on October 22, 2016.