21 May 2019 AT 02:12 PM

The importance of addressing men's mental health

It’s a hot topic, but one that men often shy away from. We find help when it comes to improving the mental health of the modern man…
21 May 2019 AT 02:12 PM
The importance of addressing men's mental health

For those of us who’ve ever been told to ‘man up’ when times have become hard, the impulse to ram those very words down the throat of the so-called ‘friend’ who’d uttered them is just too tempting. Delete them from your phone, delete them from your life. They clearly will never ‘get’ you, nor should you want them to.

Yes, modern life is much about keeping face, never letting your guard down, never admitting there’s anything amiss. But seriously, when you’re feeling low and it seems like there’s nowhere to go, forget that ingrained sense of having to say ‘I’m all right, Jack’ and open up. Men’s mental health is a topic too easily ignored, too easily unexplored.

Firstly, if anyone (apart from perhaps Gordon Ramsay), ever blurts out ‘If you can’t stand the heat...’, tell them that being so flippant is unbecoming of them – and let them scratch their Neanderthal cranium as they Google the words ‘flippant’ and ‘unbecoming’. Secondly, no matter how much you’re suffering, help is hopefully never far away.

Take it from someone who knows. At the very least, take it from the type of professionals who have guided your humble author through troubled times in the past…

To get the very heart of the matter, we first asked our experts what the biggest causes of mental health issues were.

“Men in modern society often feel that they have to live up to an ‘alpha male’ stereotype, which makes it more likely that they will pressure on themselves to ‘strive and thrive’”, says Dr David Lee, consultant clinical psychologist at HealthBay Holistic Centre.

“At times, this can become relentless, which can lead to stress, anxiety and depression. Many males also face a crisis of identity; they feel that they should be gladiatorial and able to take on and deal with an insurmountable level of pressure at times.”

Jo Jewell, a counsellor at Mindful ME, adds: “Stress and anxiety are common causes of mental health issues for men and these can be as a result of issues both at home and work.

“Men can feel a lot of pressure to provide, to compete, to have the answer and not to show any behaviour that might be
perceived as ‘weakness’ by those around them.

“Big life changes can also trigger anxiety and stress… And then reacting to this change by withdrawing or trying to avoid the feelings by using unhealthy coping strategies such as eating, drinking or forming negative relationships just exacerbates the problem.”

And as psychotherapist Andrea Anstiss says: “So much of the work I do with men is about helping them to have a sense of their own presence and esteem, first towards themselves and then in relationship to their partners, families and work life. Often they are feeling deficient in some way, not good enough, not ‘up to the mark’. I help them to understand that much of the relationship blueprint was created in their early years by the dynamics in their family of origin. So many of their present day issues and patterns can be traced back to theses early interactions. I call it the ‘family soup’.”

Even though the issue of men suffering mental health problems is much more out in the open than it was even ten years ago, there still seems to be some ridiculous stigma attached to it by society. But why?

Eda Gungor, founder of wellbeing centre Life’n One, believes progress has certainly been made, especially with the help of ‘high-profile ambassadors’ who are aiming to lift such taboos.

However, she adds: “In today’s world, we count stress as a mental health problem. And we are all stressed. Yet, in the society, people with mental health problems say that the social stigma attached to mental ill health and the discrimination they experience can make their difficulties worse and make it harder to recover. Talking, sharing and communicating with whoever you can trust is the key. The human race depends on wellbeing and support of each other.”

Jacob Melaard, aka The Truth Coach, attributes a lot of the blame on such stigmas on the current culture of ‘instant gratification, selfies, social media and consumerism’, meaning there is little emphasis on authenticity and ‘genuinely feeling our feelings’.

“Society is one of ‘Put on a brave face’ and ‘Other people have it worse than you’.

And while that may be true, the fact remains that you feel the way you feel,” he tells us.

“Specifically among men, having mental and emotional difficulties is seen as a weakness.

“Men get the message from parents, media, movies, et cetera at an early age, that they need to toughen up, soldier on, and ‘get on with it’.

“Over the past 50 to 60 years, men grew up with a ‘Don’t cry, or I’ll give you something to cry about’ mentality. Shame has run rampant among men and feeling feelings of pain, depression, and worthlessness have increased due to it.

“This, together with the ‘illusion’ that no one feels this way, except me, makes mental health problems something that apparently needs to be kept hidden.”

Zahra Poonawala, of the American Wellness Center, feels part of the predicament is down to people not understanding that even though someone might seem okay on the outside, they’re certainly suffering on the inside.

“It is easier to identify and look at physical disabilities,” she says. “For instance, you look at a person in a wheelchair and you can immediately identify that the individual has a certain difficulty. But, mental health issues are more invisible in nature. People with mental health concerns have nothing physically identifiable about them.”

She continues: “Even though people have the right intentions to provide support, quips like ‘Get over it’, ‘It’s all in your head’ or ‘You’ll be fine’ can give out the wrong message, and this further could lead to a person shutting down. That’s why it is important to educate more and more people about mental health and how to tackle it. It should become a part of our daily conversations.”

Perhaps such a lack of awareness when it comes to mental health issues is why men find it so hard to be candid about them. Granted, it’s a massive cliché but sometimes a problem shared can actually be a problem halved and getting things off your chest rather than bottling them up can be immensely helpful. Opening up is not showing weakness, as psychologist Hiba Balfaqih, co-founder of The Smash Room, points out.

“This is a myth that needs to stop being repeated,” she says. “It is a stereotype that has prevented us from actually ever truly connecting with men. Men know and are capable of revealing their problems. Just like women, in order to feel comfortable, a man needs to know that he’s safe. He’ll feel safe when he sees that the environment he is in allows him to express himself in a clear, non-judgmental way. So the advice to everyone is to drop that stereotype and men will start to share more.”

Dr Lee believes sharing your burden with ‘people you trust’ is paramount, as well as seeking the help of professionals who’ve made it their vocation to lend an ear to those in pain.

“Many males lack self-compassion and they feel that others will also dismiss or mock their suffering,” he says.

“In my experience, males who are wary can often benefit from talking to a male therapist, who they can relate to and experience as non-judgemental and understanding. This can really help to defuse the shame and stigma. There is still a great deal of work to be done surrounding awareness of mental health in males, but we are moving in the right direction. It is important that we dispel the myths surrounding the shame in appearing vulnerable at times. Males who have suffered from and overcome mental ill health can really help by speaking out and sharing their own personal stories. Only in this way can we really start to eradicate stigma and discrimination.”

Dr Saliha Afridi, a clinical psychologist and MD of LightHouse Arabia believes a ‘mindset shift’ among men will bear fruit when it comes to shifting people’s perceptions of mental health issues.

“Men are taught to believe that if you are brave or courageous you will have a stiff upper lip, dissociated from your feelings, and never show vulnerability because there is lot of shame associated with doing so,” she says.

“I would like them to know that it takes a lot more courage to take off the mask or the shield and show their authentic self to the world. That authentic self is full of faults and human emotions. Once they learn to accept their whole self and show up wholeheartedly instead of investing so much time and energy into ‘hiding their true self’ – they will feel lighter and inevitably they will feel more engaged and alive.”

Mai Elsayed, clinical hypnotherapist and founder of Bitter Sweet, points to those in the limelight truly opening up as signs of encouragement when it comes to opening up. Indeed, the likes of Prince Harry and Rio Ferdinand have spoken extensively of their own battles with depression and anxiety, and intent on breaking down barriers. Elsayed cites swimmer Michael Phelps, the 23-time Olympic gold medallist.

“Phelps said ‘I’m very comfortable talking to my wife, I’m comfortable talking with a therapist... but in the beginning,
I wasn’t.’

“Initially, it could be challenging to break the stigma or even open up about how you feel but once you bypass that first scary step, the relief is marvellous. Biting your tongue over emotional pain will take a toll on you and drain your energy. Therefore, discussing your feelings and thoughts with someone trustworthy will help you think objectively.”

We hear a lot about mindfulness nowadays and how it can improve mental health. Some might be confused as to what it actually entails but the benefits of being mindful have been clinically proven. Thankfully, Balfaqih has picked the bones out of it, saying: “It means to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not be overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around you. Mindfulness is something that we all naturally possess but thanks to all the distractions like the hundreds of notifications we receive on our phones daily, we forgot how to be mindful. It's a way to reduce stress and to relax your mind from overworking.”

Jewell agrees, adding: “Research shows that practising mindfulness can reduce over-thinking, stress, anxiety, improves our ability to be aware of and manage emotions and how we respond to situations which could be stressful. It can allow us to change our automatic thinking patterns about ourselves and others so that we can develop new, more healthy and helpful ways of thinking about ourselves, others and our environment including work, home and our relationships.”

Poonawala adds: “Engaging in mindfulness trains your brain to stay calm and focused. It also helps improve your relationships: Studies that measured mindfulness in couples, showed that couple who practised mindfulness were quicker to resolve their conflicts.”

Having the right support, both from your nearest and dearest, and your bosses and colleagues, is also essential for trying to conquer your ‘demons’. Without the help and understanding of those closest to you, the road to recovery will be a very rocky one.

Gungor says: “It is very important to be understood and supported. If we are worried about someone it can be difficult to know what to do. Both parties need to set time aside with no distractions and provide an open non-judgemental safe space. It is important to share as much or as little as you would like to in this space. Don’t pressure. Let the person be.”

Melaard adds: “It is of paramount importance that, when tackling mental health issues, someone supports you. Family, friends, great, and if they are not available, find someone like a doctor, coach, mental health professional to support you. That is first and foremost. To be supported by those you love and care for and spend most of your time with is the best way.”

But when we spend so much of our time in the office, your bosses and colleagues must also have a huge part to play in helping you through the bad times. Unfortunately, as Dr Afridi reveals, the ‘people at the top’ don’t always support healthy work practices, something she implores companies to address immediately.

“The facts, as reported by the World Economic Forum, is that the global mental health crisis is going to cost the world $16trillion (Dhs59trillion) by 2030,” she says.

“It is very frustrating that corporations of 2,000 employees come to us and say they have a ‘budget of Dhs3,000 to address wellbeing’. This is not a matter of going from good to great, this is a matter of taking mental health seriously and addressing it seriously. This is not about having a lecture on stress management twice a year but rather it is about shifting the company culture to start the dialogue of mental health.”

However, as Anstiss rightly states even the very thought of going to work can be insurmountably stressful and therefore help should (wherever possible) come from your nearest and dearest.

“Families are essentially a system, so when one person begins to change in the family it impacts the whole,” she says. “So please don’t wait for your spouse to change before seeking help. The only person that can awaken them is you. And yet so often, we in relationships point the finger. Having said that, it is wonderful if we can support each other to heal and transform.”

Let’s face it, we all need somebody to lean on from time to time. The time for stiff upper lips has long passed.

Take it from them, The experts
Dr Saliha Afridi

Clinical psychologist and managing director of LightHouse Arabia

Andrea Anstiss
Psychotherapist and holotopric facilitator

Hiba Balfaqih
Psychologist and co-founder of The Smash Room

Mai Elsayed
Clinical hypnotherapist and founder of Bitter-Sweet

Eda Gungor
Founder of the Life’n One wellbeing centre

Jacob Melaard
aka The Truth Coach

Dr David Lee
Consultant clinical psychologist at HealthBay Holistic Centre

Jo Jewell
Counsellor at Mindful ME

Zahra Poonawala
Mental health professional at the American Wellness Center


Forget the likes of Derren Brown using the art of hypnosis for financial (and sometimes comedic) gain, life isn’t a boxset of cheap gags and putting people into uncompromising situations. Clinical hypnotherapist Mai Elsayed knows a thing or two about ‘putting you under’ for the sole purpose of making you better.

“Hypnotherapy is using the tool of hypnosis to achieve a therapeutic goal. With hypnotherapy, the subconscious mind, which constitutes around 95 to 99 percent of our actions, behaviours, thoughts and feelings which arise from conditioned responses, can be directly accessed. Thus, we can work with the source of our behaviours and change them into new and more beneficial and appropriate ones.

“There are two types of hypnotherapy – analytical hypnotherapy and suggestion hypnotherapy. On one level, analytical hypnotherapy can be extremely beneficial in pinpointing the exact event that triggered [the issues] and hence rediscover and resolve any negative emotions associated with them. In a hypnotic state, clients can explore these feeling and resolve them, while converting this negative mindset to develop a much more positive one.

“On another level, suggestion hypnotherapy can play a major role in recovering illnesses such as depression. The strategy of employing suggestions, that go directly to the subconscious mind, to boost self-confidence, self-esteem and psychological resilience can be extremely helpful in tandem with analytical therapy.”