Getting men to seek help critical for mental health
Though the stigma that prevents many from reaching out for help has decreased over the past 10 years, behavioral health specialists in Northwest Colorado say that the obstacles that men face are still prevalent today.
Chris Williams, grant administrator for the rural response to the opioid epidemic at Memorial Regional Health, has years of experience working in the behavioral health world. Williams said that men face different societal expectations when it comes to mental health — especially in northwest Colorado, a place known for its residents’ grit and survival skills.
“There’s this mentality that it makes you weak, it makes you not able to handle things,” Williams said. “You should be able to take care of yourself. This mentality is very strong, particularly in rural communities, ranching communities, where people really are used to fending for themselves in a very physical way. You’ve got to be able to provide for your family, you’ve got to cut the firewood for the winter. You become very self-sufficient, and therefore you think that you always need to be self-sufficient.”
However, similar to physical health, Williams said it’s imperative that people, including men, pay attention to and take care of their mental health. For some, it just takes someone to listen to their problems in order to remedy anxiety or depression. Just like someone would listen to or reach out to any medical professional, Williams said he wants men to know that reaching out to a behavioral health specialist is the same thing.
“When you start to feel bad, it’s okay to seek help. That’s why there are professionals out there,” he said. “If you’re talking to a rancher, it’s like, well, we can’t grow our own food and produce our own meat. We go to (ranchers) for that. So if you can’t take care of your own health or mental health, you need to come to us for that, right? Everybody has their role to play in a community. I think the more we can get people to recognize that and to accept that, I think that’s going to go a long way toward breaking down some of those barriers.”
Williams said in general, men and boys are often socialized to bottle their emotions and “suck it up” from an early age. Often, he said, that way of handling negative feelings is not healthy.
“When that starts to inevitably fail, and you’re not able to work through it on your own, then you close down even more, because you start feeling bad about yourself, because you feel like you’re failing at the things that you’ve always been told to do,” Williams said. “It just becomes this sort of vicious cycle, where they just close down rather than reaching out. As we all know, that just compounds the problem. You can only stuff so much in there before it’s all going to explode at some point.”
Another key difference in treating men and boys compared to treating women and girls is how the two groups feel about diagnoses. men, Williams said, usually prefer to not be labeled as mentally ill or otherwise, while women are more likely to feel relief or feel more connected when given a diagnosis of anxiety, depression or other mental illness.
“Men don’t like being labeled,” he said. “They don’t want to be told that they have anxiety, they don’t want to be told that they’re depressed. Sometimes, they’ll say, ‘I’m not depressed, I’m just dealing with something.’”
According to data from Mental Health America, the demographic with the highest suicide rate is men over the age of 85, and more than four times as many men die by suicide than women. In 2010, almost 80% of suicide death were recorded as men. A 2001 study from the National Library of Medicine shows that 90% of people who die by suicide had shown symptoms of a mental health condition, according to interviews with family, friends and medical professionals.
Zak Conway, a licensed professional counselor and a behavioral health provider for Northwest Colorado Health, said that though he has seen a shift toward more acceptance over the course of his career in behavioral health, he said there’s still a reluctance from male clients about reaching out.
“Some of the things that I find that stops men would be, like, going to see a therapist and they don’t have the right fit with the therapist,” he said. “And instead of knowing he can have somebody else, they get discouraged, and they don’t see a different therapist.”
Conway estimated that around 60% of the clients he sees are women. Conway added that wait times for appointments could also have an effect on whether a client actually ends up going to appointments or not. If someone struggled to ask for help in the first place, it can be discouraging to have to wait another two weeks to a month before seeing someone, he said. Then, if the client does not connect with the therapist they were originally matched to, it makes it all the more difficult to continue care.
Though men and women often come in with similar life struggles or reasons to reach out for behavioral health treatment, the way those problems manifest can be different.
“All people are different, but I feel like it’s easier for men to lash out in anger or yelling,” Conway said. “I kind of see men shift to that. The way to get out some anxiety or emotions or things that you’re dealing with inside is acting out in anger. A lot of times, for men and women, it’s isolation. When you’re having a lot of mental health struggles, if you’re feeling depressed, or not feeling good inside your body, oftentimes isolating is what people do, as well.”
When a loved one does notice those signs, though, there are ways that they can encourage the men in their life to seek help without being confrontational or invalidating, Conway said. Specifically, Conway encourages concerned family members to use open-ended questions with no judgment.
“What you should do is really just try to listen,” Conway said. “Try to be present with them, and validate how they’re feeling. You really just act curious about what your friend or family member is struggling with. Instead of asking a closed yes or no question, you want to ask an open-ended question to allow them to share their experience. Ask them like, ‘how are you coping with things? What’s going on? How long have you been dealing with this?’”
These open-ended questions are a gateway to give someone who is struggling the space they need to talk about what they’re going through, whether it be anxiety, depression or other behavioral health issues. Conway advised to avoid confrontational phrases like, “you need to get help.”
Williams said the same about ultimatums that he usually sees with couples. A “do this, or we’re done” approach usually doesn’t work and often makes the situation even worse, he said. Sometimes, just offering someone assistance in getting the help they need is enough.
“Constant reassurance is necessary,” Williams said. “Telling people, ‘Hey, everybody needs help, sometimes,’ or, ‘Let me help you get the help you need.’ It’s not just saying, ‘Hey, you need to do this,’ but ‘Let me help you do this. Let me help you find somebody that can help with this. Let me make some phone calls’ or whatever the case may be. Because a lot of times, people who really need help feel very overwhelmed.”
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