Let’s Talk About ‘Men’ in Mental Health

Published by The Straits Times on 24 Aug 2019. See published article.

It is not widely known that more men commit suicide than women.

In Singapore, men are 2.5 times more likely to take their own lives than women. Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) indicated that 283 men committed suicide in 2018, compared with 114 women. More alarming is the record 19 teenage boys who took their own lives last year, doubling that of 2017 and the highest since suicide numbers were recorded in 1991.2

Research attributes 62% of all suicides in Singapore to mental illness, the other risk factors include distressing life events and chronic health conditions.

It gives me no joy to tell you that I have encountered many good men struggling with mental health challenges, across all ages and life stages. And a good number of these men have also tried to harm themselves which is why I feel compelled to write this commentary.

One of my teammates from Hush TeaBar, who lives with depression, mild bipolar and schizophrenia, has tried to kill himself so many times because he blames his condition on the assertion that he’s not strong enough which he should be as a man. A young man I know almost jumped off the 15th floor of a HDB block when he was 19, from depression. His diagnosis and recovery experience, more traumatic than the attempt because he finally had to face his family and friends with his mental health condition, reveals the stigma men are uniquely affected by in the face of mental health.

According to SOS, there remains a perception among men that “help-seeking is associated with loss of status, damage of identity, dependence, incompetence and loss of control and autonomy”. As a result, men learn to restrict their expression of emotions, bringing about significant stress from self-perceived failures in living up to these ideals. But choosing to suffer in silence further exacerbates negative effects on the body and mind. A 2013 study by the Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Rochester showed that suppressing your emotions increases chances of premature death from all causes by more than 30%.

Strong does not mean silence. The stigma faced by men, and boys, in seeking help for mental health issues and life’s challenges must be a conversation we must have.

Conversations on Mental Health between Men.

As a society, we need to normalise conversations on mental health between men in order to de-stigmatise help-seeking. These conversations are best led by male advocates, acting as role models to other men who may find it difficult to speak out and seek treatment.

Benjamin Kheng from the popular band Sam Willows, for example, shared his experience with poor mental health publicly on several occasions. He also recently scaled Marina Bay Financial Centre for the mental health charity Mindset, supporting their provision of recovery programmes in local businesses.

Hsieh Fu Hua, well known business luminary and former President of the National Council of Social Service penned a personal commentary in 2016 where he shared about his own experience with mental health conditions having gone for therapy several years ago when he suffered a bout of post-trauma stress from having lost his dog in a sudden accident. He is also caregiver to his daughter who had depression. These direct experiences shaped his advocacy in mental health with initiatives such as Caregivers Alliance and Resilience Collective.

It is my wish that more men of influence will come forward with their stories of managing their mental health, providing inspiration and comfort for other men and debunking the masculine myth of weakness in seeking help.

Mental Healthcare Outreach

We must also look at improving the accessibility of treatment for men. This is especially important given the lack of a supportive environment, which is the current reality for most Singaporean men.

Rather than expecting treatment services to be actively sought out, we can explore reorienting mental healthcare towards reaching out instead.

In Singapore, “On the Mend” was an educational health campaign targeting young men to seek help for their mental health issues. Organised by a group of NTU students, a series of roadshows was organised to disseminate health information with a content focus on depression. Although the campaign ended its run in 2018, I am looking forward to similar initiatives being organised in the future.

Coincidentally, as I was writing this, a young male team member was sharing with me about his idea to start a safe conversation series to reach out to men to discuss patriarchy, realities and vulnerabilities. We think we can do something together called A Few Good Men that I’ve been wanting to start for the last year, so stay tuned for that!

MENtal health is our collective responsibility

The responsibility of removing stigma and increasing access to mental healthcare for men must be one that we own as a society.

Employers must play their part in enacting workplace policies that promote mental wellness. Pavan Sethi, a senior partner in Accenture has taken on the mantle of a mental wellness champion, endeavouring to break the stigma for male (and female) colleagues in seeking help for mental health by sharing his own story of coping with anxiety.

Male supervisors could be trained to have one-to-one or even small group psychosocial check-ins monthly with their male employees. Workplace communities for men could be formed to support one another by engaging in common interests/activities (e.g. Sports, Music, Drinks) and sharing their mental health struggles with one another through these activities.

In May last year, 25 c-suite leaders and I came together to form the WorkWell Leaders Workgroup to champion workplace mental health as a leadership priority. We will have our first exclusive CEO Breakfast Dialogue this coming October for World Mental Health Day to co-create a multisector roadmap. It strangely pleases me that 80% of the participating CEOs confirmed are men!

Schools must invest students with the relevant management techniques and peer support skills. Older boys from the tertiary institutions could be trained in peer support to mentor and support younger boys in the primary and secondary schools by teaching them coping strategies to handle the stressors that they face. And that its ok to not be ok.

Mental health literacy for soldiers (on all levels — NSFs, non commissioned officers, officers, management) could be made mandatory so we can move the conversation beyond malingering towards truly caring for them.

Parents and society must play a part in giving and holding space for boys and men to come forward with their mental health struggles without being judged as weak. The three worst words to say to a boy is ‘be a man’.

Mental health providers must explore the complexity of masculinity and work with males to become their best selves, something that is discussed in detail in the American Psychiatric Association’s Guidelines on the Psychological Practice with Boys and Men.

You cannot imagine how happy I was when the Hush teammate recently shared that he went to see a counsellor for the first time after many years of just relying on a growing cocktail of psychiatric drugs, and nothing else. “I couldn’t stop crying, it was very strange but it stopped my self-harming thoughts,’’ he said.

Someone once said that we are at our most powerful the moment we no longer need to be powerful. It is time for us, as a society, to embrace a contemporary form of masculinity by removing the pressures put upon men to appear “strong” and “invincible”. “Real men don’t cry” is not only an outdated narrative but one that could kill more than a few good men, and teenage boys.

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Anthea Ong is a Nominated Member of Parliament, Social Entrepreneur (Hush TeaBar, A Good Space) and Author of 50 Shades of Love. www.antheaong.com

A full-time human, and part-time everything else.