Men's mental health: It's time to talk

Are men less likely to suffer from depression than women?

Men's mental health: It's time to talk

Men are not exempt from mental health issues, but through the years, countless studies have suggested that more women suffer from them than men. Last year, Ipsos conducted a study to understand how Singaporeans were coping with the mental stress related to the pandemic. They found that one in four residents said they were either facing ‘fair’ or ‘poor’ mental health. When broken down between the two genders, women (57%) were more likely to report that they’re struggling, compared with men (43%).

In a 2017 study by researchers at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH), they found that women were more prone to depression than men. Based on data from medical journals and national health studies, they concluded that women were more than twice as likely than men to suffer from a major depressive disorder or clinical depression.

However, another study released in 2019 found that men are more than twice as likely than women to commit suicide. Additionally, research by the Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) attributed 62% of all suicides in Singapore to mental illness. The other risk factors being distressing life events and chronic health conditions.

Read more: How has COVID-19 impacted men's mental health?

Are men seeking help?

Despite all the findings, researchers from the IMH study said there may be a catch to the apparent gender gap: Men are simply not coming forward to get diagnosed or discussing their struggles enough. The researcher suggested it boiled down to a cultural norm, where women were more likely than to share their problems.

At a recent webinar attended by HRD, Hiren Khemlani, performance psychologist and corporate wellness trainer, shared similar insights. “We’re all well aware that mental health has really come to the forefront in recent times with COVID,” Khemlani said during the event by AmCham Hong Kong (AmCham). “Stress levels have just been through the roof and anxiety rates and depression rates are going up. But we’re paying particular attention to men’s mental health today because when it comes to this, there seems to be something called like a silent crisis, where men tend to be significantly less likely to report mental health problems than women.

“At the same time, suicide rates in a place like Hong Kong are around double of what they are for women. So, it seems like there is a problem there. It’s just that because it goes unreported, men aren’t getting the treatment that they need for the mental health issues that they’re going through.”

Read more: Toxic Taboos: Why the stigma around mental health?

Persistent gender gap

When asked why men was less likely to report mental health issues, Khemlani said it goes back to gender stereotypes. Traditionally, men are seen as stoic in the face of adversity, stoic, strong and dominant. “[They] don’t need anyone’s help,” he said. “These kinds of traditional notions of masculinity are still seen in society today.”

The societal norms can exacerbate the issue. Let’s say a man reached out to their co-worker, manager, or friend for help and shared their problems, they may be dismissed or their experiences belittled due to societal perceptions. For instance, there’s a notion that it’s ‘frowned upon’ for men to show any vulnerability. Meanwhile, if women were to do the same, they would be met with a lot more empathy than men. “There’s an empathy gap when it comes to viewing men with mental health problems,” he said.

The other reason for the lack of reports may be due to an awareness or literacy gap about mental health issues. The practitioner said some studies showed that men tend to be a little less informed than women when it comes to mental wellness.

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Common symptoms of mental ill health

To raise awareness around the issue and help leaders understand how it can manifest in individuals, Khemlani shared what mental ill health can look like in men. “When it comes to symptoms of depression or anxiety, they come out a little differently with men,” he said. “It comes out as irritability, aggression, [and] more risk-taking behaviours.”

There may also be a tendency for sufferers to “overindulge” or abuse alcohol and drugs. Unfortunately, because of this, when men seek out professional help, they may be misdiagnosed with conditions like substance abuse disorder or anti-social personality disorder. In reality, their behaviour and actions could be “masking” their depression or anxiety. “Because of this, they’re not [given] the treatment they need,” he said. “They’re not getting to the core of the problem. And I think that’s a huge issue.”

At the workplace, it could look like the employee is just a hard worker or an overachiever – especially in high-stress work environments like Hong Kong or Singapore. “There’s this notion in places like Hong Kong where everyone’s just really busy,” he said. “There’s this norm around showing that you’re working hard, and almost overworking. It’s almost seen as necessary to maintain your employment.

“There’s a need to show that you’re able to handle the demands of the job no matter what. And it’s not going to disrupt your work. So much so that there’s this need to so seem busy. But then there are studies that show that when you’re not busy – when men aren’t busy – there’s those feelings of anxiety and depression.”

Read more: Are you okay? The power of storytelling in mental health

How can leaders help?

So what can employers do to help their struggling male employees out? Khemlani said it boils down to managing culture and leadership. He suggested the following:

  • Start role modelling the behaviours you want to see in employees
  • Demonstrate that it’s okay to be vulnerable

He believes it’s crucial that leaders lead the charge so that everyone one in the company can feel like it’s okay to express what they’re going through. For instanc,e if you share a personal story with employees, explain why you’re doing so, so that staff feel like they too can open up with their own issues at work. “The more that companies encourage these kinds of initiatives, the more people are going to open up and express their vulnerability,” he said. “[They can] express that: you know what, I am going through a difficult time right now. And that they trust the company. So, I think it starts at the top and it’s got to be role modelled.”

If you or someone you know needs support, please contact the following helplines:

  • National CARE hotline: 1800 202 6868
  • Samaritans of Singapore: 1800 221 4444
  • Institute of Mental Health’s Mental Health Helpline: 6389-2222
  • TOUCHline (Counselling): 1800 377 2252
  • Care Corner Counselling Centre: 1800 353 5800

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