Expert panel says stigma remains over men’s mental health though situation improving

A panel of experts, convened by the Pureland Series for China Exchange, this week acknowledged that men’s mental health was becoming easier to discuss in the public domain, but there was still a considerable stigma attached to the issues.

Experts such as Paul Farmer, the CEO of MIND, and Joel Beckman, General Manager of the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM), shared their experiences with a live audience – in an evening in London that was moving and insightful.

The Pureland Series event was inspired by startling and little-discussed statistics about men’s mental health, including:

  • Suicide is the biggest cause of death for men under 35
  • Over three quarters of people who kill themselves are men
  • 87% of rough sleepers are men
  • Men are nearly three times more likely than women to become alcohol dependent or to report frequent drug use
  • 72% of male prisoners suffer from two or more mental disorders and men make up 95% of the prison population
  • Men report significantly lower life satisfaction than women in the Government’s wellbeing survey
  • 73% of adults who “go missing” are men

The panel was moderated by Good Morning Britain’s Sean Fletcher. As well as Paul Farmer and Joel Beckman, the other panellists were Jon Salmon, who lost his father to suicide and has been affected by mental illness, and Dr Steve Young from the US Embassy.

The panel agreed that mental health had become a little easier to talk about in the public domain. Royal Foundation’s Heads Together campaign, celebrity advocates, and reports in the mainstream media had helped to raise awareness, but the stigma was still slow to go away. They all agreed that it was generally the fear of judgment that prevented men from seeking help before it is too late.

Collectively the panel members asked themselves and a packed audience why it was that men suffered quietly.

In moving exchanges, Sean Fletcher disclosed that his son had been hospitalised for OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) and Jon Salmon described how the decision to speak openly and publicly about his mental health experiences had led to feelings of liberation and vulnerability. All his friends, and even his wife, he said, had expressed surprise as they were not aware of his suffering.

The panel agreed that the provision for mental health in our society is dwarfed by the provision for physical health. Paul Farmer said mental health was “the Cinderella of the NHS”. Although improvements were being made, he said, there was much work to be done to improve mental health awareness and openness in both schools and workplaces – the places we all spend most of our lives. And as for the young, currently only one in four young people in need is being helped through NHS due to limited resources, and current and new programmes will raise that only to one in three.

Still the panel agreed that mental healthcare cannot be the sole provision of the NHS – the responsibility sits with all of us.

In sharing that both of their fathers had committed suicide, Joel Beckman and Jon Salmon had the courage to discuss the effects of suicide on the families and friends left behind; the bewilderment, grief, responsibility and questioning was shared by many of the audience, who contributed their own stories of loss and mental suffering, and an exploration of what might have been done differently to help those in pain.

Asked therefore for advice on what we should say or do if we suspect someone we know is suffering from a mental health issue, the panel’s suggestions included:

  • Paying attention to any unusual behaviour as this can indicate a change in emotional wellness. For example, drinking more than usual; insomnia or sleeping longer than normal, taking recreational drugs; or driving recklessly can all indicate that a man is struggling. Paul Farmer suggested the audience visit MIND’s website for further details. If you notice these changes in a loved one, ask how they are and if they need to talk.
  • Trust is an important issue. Building trust is the key for friends and family to open up. Make a connection so that the person is reminded that they are not alone. The sense of connectedness can be a life-saver. Dr Young pointed out: “The door is open, they [the sufferer] may not choose to walk through it that day, but they know it is there.”
  • Don’t be afraid of not being an expert. As Dr Young said: “We are all qualified to initiate a conversation.” Sending a text was highlighted as a less intrusive way of letting someone know that you are thinking of them if you are not feeling confident to start a face-to-face conversation.

One fact to note for vigilant friends and family: the likelihood of mental health problems arising in men is highest in the 55 to 64-year-old age bracket, according to Paul Farmer.

As a stark illustration of the challenges that remain, Farmer called mental health “one of the biggest issues facing us in this century”.