By Helen Preston, counsellor
Over the last few years, there has been a lot of campaigning to highlight issues around men’s mental health. High-profile males from the world of sport, the music and entertainment business as well as the royal family have all been open and honest about their personal struggles with mental wellbeing.
But although such candidness has paved the way for a more honest discussion of male vulnerability, many of my male clients’ report feeling exposed and weak if they share with their family and friends that they are struggling to cope with painful emotional challenges.
Maybe there was a time when ‘man up’ meant ‘shut up’, but I have been pleasantly surprised at how many men actually take the step of coming for counselling – although some do admit to being ‘sent’ by their wives, partners or mothers.
In this instance, they often show initial reluctance to explore their feelings and have little aim other than to appease their loved ones (who are frequently much more aware of the struggle going on within them than they think). But they come along anyway and, with rare exceptions, continue to come.
More recently though, it has been noticeable how many men are referring themselves. Some say that because male mental health issues are spoken about more publicly these days, they feel more confident to seek help.
For example, a recent episode of ITV drama Cold Feet raised the issue of men in counselling and portrayed the process quite positively. Adam, a happy-go-lucky, Jack the Lad character is shown to have unresolved emotional ‘stuff’ going on too.
As a counsellor working with men, it is heartening to see – especially as 75% of people who commit suicide are males, with men between the ages of 45 and 49 the most likely group to take their own life. Nonetheless, figures from the Samaritans show that the male suicide rate in the UK is currently at its lowest in more than 30 years – and those are statistics worth talking about.
During counselling sessions, men are offered a safe and confidential space to discuss their fears and concerns. Many judge themselves harshly as being weak for having negative feelings and angry or fearful emotions. They believe they are the only ones feeling this way and that there is something wrong with them. But counselling helps them recognise that they are not on their own.
Compounding the problem
Unfortunately though, it appears that modern social influences are compounding the problem and making men more fearful. While throughout history, some men have done terrible things, it is certainly not all of them. But feminism, while empowering for women, can feel to men as if it is just about male-bashing.
This situation may account for the popularity of Canadian psychologist, Professor Jordan Peterson. His book ‘12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos’ has been topping best-seller lists for some time, and his YouTube videos are hugely popular with young men. In these works, he explores what is going on for males and why so many of the young ones in particular are so disillusioned.
One of the key issues here is that, with all of the social change that has taken place over the last 40 years, men are now unsure of how to behave. Is holding open a door for a woman polite or an insult? Is paying for dinner still a ‘requirement’ or out of step with ideals of sexual equality? Is it OK to approach a woman in a bar and complement her on how she looks (when she has obviously taken the time to look good) or is that too intrusive?
The most surprising thing for me as a female on becoming a counsellor was just how much boys and young men have to deal with. Almost all the teenagers I have worked with suffer from anxiety and depression. There is a general lack of self-confidence and self-belief.
Fear of failure is also a big issue, even with young men who are bright and achieving well academically. But the biggest revelation of all was the levels of shame they experience. Shame is a big one for everyone to deal with, but social media seems to make it almost unbearable. There was a time when mistakes could be made in private and lessons learned quietly, but not any more.
The young men I work with tell me that they find relationships a minefield. They fear being publicly humiliated and shamed by girls they have dated or have chatted with online. Boys have feelings too, and some girls can be incredibly hurtful.
Then there is the beauty industry. Having saturated the female market, it has now moved onto males, resulting in boys being exposed, and conditioned to conform, to the same unreal images. As a result, boys are more insecure than ever about how they look, with eating disorders, self-harming, anxiety and depression all becoming more common.
Sharing emotional struggles
However, talking therapies give men an opportunity to know and understand themselves better, to explore what is real, to find solutions and to make positive changes. It is about reframing past negative experiences.
Most importantly, they can also spend time in a space where there is no judgment – and in a world where they feel constantly judged, that can feel very liberating. It is possible to explore what is going on for them in a safe environment in order to understand what is bringing about their mental struggles, which often manifests itself in physical pain.
Key questions include: what does being a man mean to them? Where did they learn about what being a man is and are there ways of doing things that feel more authentic for them? In terms of role models, some of my older male clients are still doing what they were taught when they were brought up, even though it does not bring them, or those around them, either satisfaction or happiness.
Indeed, too many experience loneliness, even if they are in long-term relationships. Key challenges include family pressures; being the main provider; supporting a spouse while still trying to focus on work; fear of losing their job or of re-entering the workplace following time out after redundancy or illness, and anxiety that if they confide in their partner about how they feel they will be seen as weak and not manly enough.
In general, women find it easier to share their emotional struggles with each other. But men often don’t. Some, for various reasons, lose the group of friends they once had and find it hard to make new ones – which is why counselling can be such an important avenue towards supporting their metal wellbeing.
So let’s keep on talking about these issues. Let’s make it more acceptable for men to talk to a counsellor in non-judgemental confidence about their particular struggles. Let’s help them understand that there are ways to move beyond what may seem like impossible obstacles, and that talking about it out loud can help.
With this in mind, if you know a man who is struggling, take a moment to ask him if he’s really OK. Just encourage him to talk because it really can make a world of difference.
Helen Preston is a counsellor, Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) expert and reiki practitioner. Her approach to therapy acknowledges the crucial inter-relationship of mind, body and spirit. Helen is a member of the National Counselling Society and has an Advanced Diploma in psychotherapy and counselling, a Diploma in Hypnotherapy and an EFT Master Practitioner certificate.
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