men’s health has been left understudied and unauthorised in both social and medical science research on health. Women have been the focus of mental health research because of their high rates of diagnosed mental disorder and utilisation of mental health facilities.
Mental health of men has been a silent crisis, but there are signs that this silent crisis is at last awakening. Where statistics are available, there is evidence that more young and middle aged men are being hospitalized, just as there is evidence that new fathers are vulnerable to depressive illness after childbirth.
In Canada, for instance, it has been found that10 per cent of men experienced symptoms of mental health disorders and substance dependencies, compared to 11 per cent of women. In the United Kingdom, studies of depression show a major shift in the traditional gender imbalance, with depressive illness rising among men and decreasing among women.
The greatest evidence of male vulnerability is in suicide statistics. Among Canadians of all ages, four out of every five suicides are male. In the UK, men are about three times more likely to kill themselves than women.
Newspaper and magazine articles continue to appear on topics such as the decreasing number of men in the workforce or the decreasing percentage of boys graduating from high school and college. Television and radio talk-shows regularly focus on changing roles for men as women increasingly enter the public workforce and challenge the traditional, restrictive, feminine roles.
Beyond the biological definitions of manhood, the social implications of the responsibility of manhood in our dynamic changing culture may explain this emerging mental health burden. There is strong evidence to show that men also practise more unhealthy behaviours than women, which may invariably have mental health underpinnings.
Male and societal attitudes have fostered the silence about men’s mental health. The women’s health movement is very self-directed since men are expected, through the cultural lens, to be tough and strong. Our society is very good at punishing gender deviation in men, as any form of weakness is not considered to be masculine.
This cultural code governing men’s behaviour is one of the prime barriers preventing them from seeking help. It is easier for men to acknowledge physical symptoms rather than emotional ones, hence their mental health problems go undiagnosed.
Men may perceive it is weak and unmanly to admit to feelings of despair. Cultural beliefs about masculinity also encourage men’s general lack of interest in health issues, since many of them do not simply believe they are susceptible to mental health problems. Men may describe their own symptom of depression without realising they are depressed!
They make no connection between their mental health and physical symptoms such as headaches, digestive symptoms and chronic pain. In men, mental illness can be masked. Women are more apt to recognise illness of any sort and go to the doctor.
The consequences of masked depression in men can be devastating, as they can act out in the form of undue hostility and irritability, verbal violence and abusiveness, especially in the marital relationship. Some many even take to excessive drinking, substance dependency and indiscriminate sexual escapades.
Also, in cases of marital break-up, there is a very important link between a man’s mental health and how the divorce goes. When children are involved and the man has a supportive ongoing relationship, the adaptation is better. But in the case of complete severance, the man can become suicidal.
Men’s focus on competition and feeling powerful can be adversely affected by unemployment or retrenchment. Physical illness, especially life-threatening conditions, may be a trigger for depression, especially when it impacts a man’s sense of strength and status.
In Nigeria, we may not have media reports and eloquent statistics illustrating this emerging trend in men’s mental health, but the truth is that these issues exist; and with the emerging western impact on our traditional cultural values, men have had to pay enormous mental health price.
The reality of modern marital experience reflects this conflict, as our women are financially and socially empowered team players rather than passive subordinates.
A good number of men comes down with undiagnosed depressive illness masked with physical problems. The economic crisis of military years dislocated many growing families – a situation that affected proper nurturing of the male children by single mothers.
More time and resources should be devoted to the training of our male children to prepare them to cope with the challenges of manhood. Women in marriages should endeavour to nurture true manhood in their husbands without fracturing their ego.
There should be clubs and other social templates that will allow the men to express their mental health challenges freely.
Attending physicians in private practice should explore possibility of a mental health challenge among men coming quite frequently for consultations.