Published: 16 June 2022. Written by: Susannah Pearce.
This Men’s Health Week, we touch on five different ways that can help to support men’s health and improve mental health.
Men are much less likely to speak out regarding mental health than women, however, around one in eight men in England has a mental health issue but are struggling to address it. With men working longer hours on average in the workplace and finding it difficult to talk about mental health, suicide has become the biggest killer of men under 45. So for Men’s Health Week, here are some ways that you can support your mental health, and look after your wellbeing.
1) Find a good work-life balance
When it comes to paid employment, British men tend to work longer hours than women, with almost half working more than the standard 35-40 hours per week. Prior to the pandemic, men were reporting lower levels of life satisfaction than women. Since the pandemic, life satisfaction has declined sharply for everyone, and working from home has further negatively impacted the work-life balance, with many of us expected to respond to urgent tasks and emails in non-working hours.
‘When I ask my clients to place the six elements of their life in order of importance, I see a definite pattern,’ says Dr Harry Barry, a GP and the author of several best-selling books on mental health issues. ‘Men tend to put work first, children next, then wider family, their relationship and hobbies. “Self”, which includes mental health, comes last. This is a recipe for toxic stress. The ideal is self first, then relationship, children, wider family, work and hobbies.’
So how can a healthy work-life balance be created? ‘Don’t let your whole focus be on work,’ advises Dr Barry. ‘Put your mental health first or everything else will crumble. Invest time into other areas of your life – do things you enjoy and make sure your relationships are strong.’ One way you can do this is by setting boundaries around your work and home life, says Belinda Sidhu, Head of Mental Health and Wellbeing at Vitality. ‘If you’re working from home, ensure you log off at the end of the working day and put all work-related technology away and out of sight.’
2) Get healthier and drop bad habits
What you eat, how you sleep, how much exercise you take and whether you drink or smoke have a huge bearing on your mental health.
Studies show that women consume more fruit, vegetables, legumes and whole foods, while men tend to eat foods richer in fat and protein, and drink more wine, beer, spirits and sweet carbonated drinks – behaviours more likely to lead to weight gain and obesity.
‘A healthy body leads to a healthy mind,’ says Dr Barry. ‘But most important is sleep. When you don’t get enough sleep, you’re more likely to eat poorly and put on weight. Sleep problems and becoming more unhealthy can also be early symptoms of stress and mental health issues. In these circumstances men are more likely to use alcohol as a crutch than women, but it’s a depressive and can leave you feeling even more stressed.’
In fact, men are three times more likely than women to become dependent on alcohol, and three times more likely to report frequent drug use.
So how can men ensure their physical health supports their mental health? ‘Reduce the amount of coffee you drink – that’s a killer for sleep. Go to bed early and don’t allow technology in the bedroom,’ advises Dr Barry. ‘Thirty minutes of brisk exercise each day [a minimum of three days a week], reduces anxiety and depression, and improves memory and neurogenesis. Once you’re sleeping better and feeling healthier, you’re better able to cope with stress.’
3) Make connections to beat loneliness
Studies have shown that feeling lonely can be as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It’s even worse for you than obesity, with proven links to increased high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, cognitive decline and dementia.
In a recent UK study, more than 1.2 million men aged over 50 reported moderate to high levels of social isolation (having less contact with children, family and friends than women and younger men), while 700,000 reported feeling lonely.
‘Loneliness is not the same as being alone,’ explains Dr Barry. ‘It’s when a person is not happy with being alone and it’s a mental illness that’s dangerous to health. Men approaching later life, in particular, need to retain and build social networks among friends, family and interest groups.’
Combating loneliness will look different for everyone – it’s a case of discovering what works for you. ‘You could try volunteering, connecting with friends regularly, finding a new hobby, or joining a gym class, local park run or online forums,’ says Sidhu.
4) Practise unconditional self-acceptance
The biggest block to good mental health can be how hard you are upon yourself. ‘The internal critic can be very strong with men, and is influenced by upbringing and life experiences,’ says Dr Barry. ‘If something goes wrong, men feel like a failure. They merge who they are with what they do. They judge themselves and social media makes this worse: “If my rating is good, I’m good; if it’s down, I’m crap.”’
Unconditional self-acceptance is key for mental health. ‘It’s understanding that, while your actions and skills can be measured, you are unique and special and can’t be rated as a person,’ explains Dr Barry. ‘The only failure is not getting back up again – and that’s resilience.’
However, it’s important to note that self-acceptance isn’t easy and takes persistence. ‘Taking small daily steps towards it is key,’ says Sidhu. ‘Try practising gratitude, setting boundaries – for example around work/home and social media, as well as learning to say no when things are too much – and reframing negative or unhelpful thoughts.’
5) Ask for help when you need it
Compared to women, men are less likely to seek help for mental health difficulties. In fact, a recent report from Vitality found that women are 69% more likely to use Talking Therapy services than men.
‘During difficult times, men are more likely to go in on themselves than ask for help,’ says Dr Barry. ‘Women have much better language and communication skills. Men tend to handle difficult situations by pretending everything is alright and by drinking and ruminating more.’
Most of us can recognise the signs of anxiety, stress and frustration, such as drinking and eating too much, having sleep problems, irritable bowel syndrome, being bad-tempered with loved ones and showing little empathy.
But failing to acknowledge these early signs can have serious consequences, as mental health problems are left to grow unchecked. Without support or help, it can feel like there’s no way out, which is not the case. This is particularly relevant for men, as three times as many men die by suicide than women. In fact, suicide is the leading cause of death for men under 50 years old.
Don’t let things get to this stage. ‘Open up to someone close to you,’ advises Dr Barry. ‘Talking things through will help relieve anxiety and emotional distress. Go to your GP for more support.’
If you don’t feel comfortable talking to someone close to you, Sidhu recommends talking charities, such as Samaritans, who are available 24/7, 365 days a year. Call 116 123 for free.
Vitality health insurance offers members up to eight online or face-to-face Talking Therapy sessions each year, including counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Members should log into the Member Zone to visit the mental health hub. Visit www.vitality.co.uk to become a member.
If you would like to know about men’s health, we look at 5 ways that men can look after their physical wellbeing.
As a Vitality member, you could get partner benefits and rewards with a range of big brands. Available with qualifying health insurance, life insurance and investment plans. Log in to the Member Zone for the details.