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Written by Karey Meisner

Recently, the NZ Coroner released the suicide rates for the year and it isn’t easy reading. The rate of suicide among men – particularly Canterbury men − is at the highest level ever [1]. Why is that men make this choice? From my experience, many men need to be seen by others to have the ability to self-manage which includes being mentally strong enough to endure any hardships that arise in day-to-day living. In other words, if ‘something’s not quite right’, many men don’t like to be viewed by others as ‘less than’ a complete. And telling others there is ‘something not quite right’, paradoxically, becomes the proof of being just that. Sadly, it is this, I beleive, that leads many men to not say anything and, instead, suicide. It’s simply too hard to admit – even to a partner or a GP – of one’s perceived failure as a man.

Even those men who do say something tend to wait until the last minute when they can no longer function and, more pointedly, have no strength left to persevere. Adding to this,some men are self-destructing due to using coping strategies (e.g., alcohol and drugs, gambling and other addictive type behaviour) which are no longer useful. Most importantly (read this part slowly!), men tend to wait until they perceive the risk of not saying anything being greater than the risk of saying something. In other words, men will say something’s not right when their partner/wife is threatening to leave, the boss is questioning their performance, friendships are drifting away, and when their freedom is being threatened (men are the highest users of inpatient mental health services). And it can be more than one of these happening at once!

Despite this, I believe men’s willingness to say something to others when something’s not right is on the verge of positive changes. You see, it’s all about the timing and I think John Kirwan has been tremendously important in preparing men for the next stage. Thanks to John, people – including, most importantly, men themselves – are now talking more openly about men’s mental wellbeing. The topic is well and truly out of the shadows and into public view. Yeah for that! This increasingly open discussion has, I believe, readied men for an even more profound shift to this; I believe we are not far awar from men not just talking about mental wellbeing in a general sense but talking to each other about their own mental wellbeing in a specific sense.

Lets go into more detail. Men typically did not seek out other men because of the belief they will be the most judging of men who are not able to care of themselves (and others) and consequently need help. It is the concerns about what other men – particularly successful men - would say (or think and not say!) that has been a hurdle. Will I lose their respect, even the friendship altogether if they see that I’m not coping? This is a basic concern for many men.

Interesting, some men are already seeking out other men for help. Typically, though, this is well after the crisis has happened and after others have been approached first (i.e., partners and GPs). You see, other men – particularly other men who have ‘been there’ − have something that is needed. Men need to compare their experience to other men’s experiences to know if the experience and their response to it (not coping) is normal. Additionally, men need the experiential knowledge of these other men to rectify the situation and return to normal functioning again. In other words, men seek information to be reassured and to know what can be done to 'fix it'. Men who have ‘been there’ and struggled with life and its challenges, and made it through, are perceived to be less likely to be judgemental.

This question needs to be asked. Why focus on promoting men to seek help from other men when it has been well documented that partners/wives are most likely to be the catalyst for men to seek help, particularly given living together makes mental wellbeing concerns more noticeable. There is an important reason for not limiting promotion to partners/wives. It is simple. Many men do not have partners and if they do, one of the main stressors that creates distress leading to mental wellbeing issues is when a relationship is not going well. It is well known in counselling circles that relationship issues are one of the main, if not the main, reasons for people seeking help.

The remaining challenge is how to get men to talk to each other, and talk to each other sooner when things are not quite right as opposed to waiting until the crisis of coping and associated risks get too high. I believe this involves circumnavigating the socialising process, the process that says men are to be self-managing – strong, self-sufficient and stoic − and non-disclosing of personal experiences when making friends. It is well known that men make friends by doing things activities together and/or by talking about interests; you know, politics, rugby, work and the weather. The challenge is how to assist men to articulate experiences of a personal nature including, importantly, those times when things are not quite right, when this type of disclosing represents a threat to the very core of traditional masculine identity.

For those men who have yet to disclose, here are some thoughts about what it could look like. If you don’t have a trusted close friend, identifying a man from in your networks (extended family, social, work or sports) you think would get it - maybe having already been there - is a good start. Signalling to them in advance that you want to speak about something personal can allow you to gauge their willingness and give them the time to ready themselves. If words don’t come easily, not to worry you don’t have to go into detail, the key is that they know where you are at generally. A facial expression or hand gesture may be enough.

For those men who have 'been there', your experience will help you spot a man who is not quite right by the subtleties of their comments (e.g., ‘not sure about anything anymore, mate'), actions (e.g. working late hours) and/or mood (e.g., irritable). It doesn’t have to be a lot of words but just let him know that you get it. Once that man knows you understand their struggle, then maintain regular connection so that he knows you are watching out for him. The fact that they know another man knows and has his interests at heart can be enough to sustain a person through quite a bit. For other men who need to talk it to keep going, be available. It doesn’t necessarily mean fixing it; venting can be good as it lowers the distress.

I personally think the above is Manly As. It takes genuine courage to show vulnerability and disclosing mental wellbeing concerns to another man. Men who share vulnerability to another man and have a positive experience also gain rewards; it put them in a strong position to develop a trusting connection with another man which, paradoxically, helps develop more resilience (strength!) to cope with future challenges in life. As more men disclose openly to other men about their mental health, it has a snowball effect because it increases the number of men who have ‘been there’. With more men having ‘been there’, it means there are more men available to go to if somethings not quite right. It also allows the increased number of men who have ‘been there’ to use their experiential knowledge to identity and offer support to those who are struggling. To be willing to show vulnerability or, alternatively, to offer compassion in the form of support is, in my way of thinking, indeed Manly As! 

[1] Statistics have been maintained by Coroner’s Office since 2007