Why men neglect their mental health

September 9, 2016


Sarah Berry, 
As featured on the The Juice Daily

Suck it up and move on with it.

This was how Sebastian Robertson dealt with emotion. How he thought men were meant to deal with their emotions.

Life was on track externally for the Sydneysider, except that internally it wasn’t.

“I had this separation of personality: one which everyone knew and was pretty well liked — which I liked — and the other which was complete isolation, darkness, no sense of hope or a way out,” reveals the 31-year-old , who had a good family, good friends and was president of his university college where he was studying commerce and economics.

“You generally know what the expectation is of what you’re meant to be so it becomes very easy to put that show on, especially if you’ve put that show on for a prolonged period of time… I did the standard cultural turn to alcohol, I obsessed with sport… But it distanced me from how I really felt.”

Only when he retreated to his room would Robertson allow his dark reality to play out; he managed to keep his depression and several attempts at suicide completely secret .

“It’s easy to not be seen for 12 hours or so,” he explains.

Eventually however, his internal turmoil toppled to the outside world.

After a night of heavy drinking 10 years ago, the then 22-year-old returned to college to find police there over an incident involving the intoxication of another student.

Robertson became involved, becoming “fairly confrontational” and ended up being tackled to the ground by five police officers and taken to the local station where he was put in a holding cell overnight.

“The justification was ‘we’re doing it because we think you’re a danger to yourself’” he explains. “Was I a danger to myself? Yes, 100 per cent. That was my lightbulb moment of ‘sort your shit out’.”

Sorting his shit out involved asking for help and acknowledging the stigma he felt around his own perceived weakness.

“I think there are two barriers for men,” Robertson says. “One is that mentality – ‘be a man’, ‘man-up’ and the other is admitting you have a mental health issue and reaching out for support.  ‘I can’t have a mental health issue because that is fundamentally a massive vulnerability of any individual and we don’t like to be taken advantage of’.

“On top of that, as a guy, I didn’t know how to talk about it because I’ve never discussed my emotional feelings and I was in a position where I thought I was not meant to. So overcoming the masculinity stereotype and reaching out for support at the same time is a huge hurdle to face in one hit.”

It is a challenge many men face. One in eight men experience depression and men account for 75 per cent of suicides. In Australian men aged between 15 and 45, suicide is the leading cause of death.

Experts believe that these shocking statistics are the result of others who, like Robertson, struggle in silence and just try to ‘suck it up’.

“Men tend to minimise, misinterpret or dismiss their symptoms,” explains Kristine Kafer, of the Black Dog Institute, who is presenting on how to engage men in managing their mental health at the 2016 Australian Psychological Society Congress 13 to 16 September in Melbourne.

Add to this unhelpful beliefs about masculinity — “that being a man means being strong and stoic, having to cope on one’s own and not ask for help, being strong for others and not burdening anyone, being weak if they feel strong emotions or struggle with mental health and emotional issues. This means they respond to their own distress with self blame and shame, are less likely to tell anyone or seek help, which exacerbates the symptoms and their isolation and the downward spiral”.

It was understanding this that led Robertson to begin batyr, an organisation aimed at starting conversations around mental health and which focuses on preventative education of young people. In five years since inception, batyr has reached more than 46,000 young people and trained 220 young people how to share their stories, all similar in nature to Sebastian’s.

It is also what makes others, like Kafer, stress the importance of educating men about the early signs of a spiral that can take them into a dark place.

“Men don’t tend to show the traditional symptoms of depression,” Kafer explains. “They might be narky or flustered and might display more physical symptoms — disengaging, low motivation, changes in sleep and eating patterns.”

The language men often use around depression is different too, Kafer says.

“They say they’re stressed or tired or ‘down’ not depressed or sad necessarily,” says Kafer, who adds that they are more likely to use unhelpful coping mechanisms like alcohol, drugs, over working or taking sexual risks to distract from depression.

Kafer and Robertson have similar attitudes about what we all need to do to address a problem that effects far too many Australians.

We need to create a more open conversation, check in more without judgement and listen more to ourselves and one another. And we need to stop sucking it up and start seeing the strength required in reaching out.

“You should be able to have a conversation on this topic at any point and know that there will be a spectrum of when you have good days and bad days,” Robertson says.

“We have no issue discussing ‘yeah, I know I’m unfit at the moment and i could go and do exercise but I choose not to’ and then you’ll go through moments of ‘yeah, I’m going to commit to going to the gym’. We don’t do that with mental health at all.”

“We need to stop thinking that mental health is separate from our general physical health,” adds Kafer, who also suggests exploring a free online program created by the Black Dog Institute, My Compass, that provides a mental health ‘toolkit’. “The brain is part of the body and mental health issues are very much a physical, real issue.”

Based on research by the University of NSW and the Black Dog Institute

Suicidal men did not want to be told that everything would be okay, they did want someone who would genuinely listen. “Feeling isolated and ashamed men reported that at the time they were unlikely to have sought help, but would have accepted help if it came from the right person (someone they respect) in the right fashion (nonjudgmental, genuine, open).”

Top 5 Management strategies

Taking time out

Rewarding myself with something enjoyable

Keeping busy


Spending time with pet

Top 5 Prevention Strategies

Eating healthily

Keeping busy


Humour to reframe

Helping others

Saturday, September 10 is World Suicide Prevention Day

For support, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or beyondblue on 1300 224 636.