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Solving Mental Health Issues in Men: Finding Meaning in Turbulent Times

May 30, 2024 09:30AM ● By Dr. Reef Karim
man walking looking sad

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Many men struggle with mental health issues, often experiencing debilitating emotional turmoil, alone and in silence. Evidence of this suffering can be quantified in a number of ways 

An epidemic of “despair deaths” related to alcoholism, substance abuse and suicide is documented to be worse in men than women. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American males were almost four times more likely to commit suicide than women in 2021. The National Institutes of Health  reports overdose mortality rates for opioids and stimulant drugs such as methamphetamine and cocaine are two to three times greater in men. While men use drugs at higher rates than women, this alone does not explain the gap in overdose deaths.

Loneliness has become such a widespread problem that the U.S. Surgeon General recently called it an epidemic and the World Health Organization noted, “The effect of social isolation and loneliness on mortality is comparable to that of other well-established risk factors such as smoking, obesity and physical inactivity.” A 2021 report by the Survey Center on American Life stated that since 1990, the number of men saying they have no close friends has jumped from 3 percent to 15 percent.


Mens Health and the Pandemic

COVID-19 incurred invisible costs such as increases in loneliness and mental health strain. Because men generally tend to spend less time and energy cultivating meaningful social relationships but still require structure to thrive, the pandemic was particularly destructive to them.

Roughly one out of three men in America under the age of 30 reported having no sex in the last year (a 30-year low), which is an obstacle to building meaningful relationships and families. Men have become not only socially disconnected, but also more vulnerable to following dangerous groups, influencers and others with extreme messaging. Men that fail to attach to partners, communities or careers may grow increasingly resentful and act out with volatility and unrest. An African proverb says, “The young men who do not feel the warmth of the tribe will burn down the village to feel it.”

Origins and Causes

According to Gabor Maté, a Canadian physician, author and speaker on addiction, stress and childhood development, “The issue is men’s value has been defined in a very narrow sense, and when the power is taken away from people, people have a loss of agency and loss of control, belonging, meaning and value. Men have become deprived of a sense of meaning and belonging, and that’s a function of the culture we live in.”

 

Possible Solutions 

Men’s Mental Health Advocacy: Shame is the biggest barrier, preventing men from seeking help and expressing vulnerability. We need to talk and stop shaming them.

Male-Specific Mental Health Treatment: Men communicate differently, so counseling must address unexamined feelings. Research shows that physical activity can help reduce anxiety and depression, so sports activities that draw men together such as softball, surfing or martial arts can offer a win-win situation 

Emotional Communication Training: Men need to develop their emotional communication skills, such as how to express themselves and share feelings through language, vulnerability and emotional expression, to deepen relationships. Men can be strong and competitive while also being authentic, vulnerable and emotionally connected. 

Maté advises, “Men need to accept their vulnerability and work it through, and not reject it or be ashamed of it. And to let go of, ‘I can’t be self-reflective; I have to be tough,’ and that takes a lot of help and support. Men who come back from war will heal by accepting their vulnerability and spending time in support groups. Another thing we should do is show respect for the courage of those men who choose to explore their vulnerability.”

Embracing Universal Masculinity and Femininity: We must realize there is masculinity and femininity in all of us. Neither masculinity nor femininity is the problem—hatred, oppression and inequality of opportunity are the problems, no matter the gender or ratio of masculine and feminine qualities within the individual.

Defining Healthy Masculinity: Masculine qualities are traditionally thought of as bravery, strength, courage, confidence, ambition, competitiveness, self-reliance and decisiveness. These standards are hard to live up to, so the question is how do we adapt healthy masculinity to be equipped with skills for success in changing times.

Offer Coaching Before Therapy: Because men may be more defensive, less open, less vulnerable and more disconnected from their feelings than women, many will respond to coaching over therapy, which can be a gateway to start thinking about deeper purpose and well-being. A personal development program geared specifically for men to build skills, share support and figure out how to excel in a changing world of technology and role-confusion may be helpful.

Encourage Inspiration and Purpose: Men need to find purpose by doing something meaningful that inspires them and makes them feel energized and appreciated. The more they feel helpless and stuck in survival mode, the more loneliness grows.

Psychologist Elizabeth Lombardo explains how a survival mentality doesn’t allow for meaningful and purposeful pursuit. “Perceived or real threats put you in survival mode, and when you’re in this mode, your limbic system takes over and you’re not thinking about purpose, connection or collaboration (things that can pull you out of this mode); you’re just trying to survive.”

Men’s health needs to become a movement that encourages males to be proud of their masculinity, but also add new skills in emotional communication and vulnerability to find purpose, improve their health and have the best chance for success in turbulent times.

Dr. Reef Karim is a humanistic psychiatrist and founder of Mad Genius and The Madness Movement. For more information, visit TheMadnessMovement.com and MadGeniusLife.com.

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