By Chloe Hares
The National Institute for Health Research have found that 69% of university students who commit suicide are male. This correlates with the fact that young men (aged 18-25) are most vulnerable to developing mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression but are simultaneously less likely to seek help by counselling, or even just letting close friends know of their struggles. So why is it that young men feel they cannot access help?
The stigma around men’s mental health has been hyper-present for years, from suffering of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, to shaming men in the media for being openly emotional; there seems to be little progression in how we tackle the issue as it takes new forms as time goes on. For male university students, this stigma is particularly difficult to deal with – not only are they faced with the usual struggles of university life on academic, social and independent level, but they are less likely to receive any help because they believe that these issues are just something they ought to ‘cope’ with.
The never-ending, futile online competition which is social media has also poorly affected men’s mental health as it fills its users’ feeds with idealised, utopic lives, especially around appearance and personal achievements. Last year, a study by the charity CALM and the photo/video sharing social network Instagram found that last year, 48% of men aged 16-40 were struggling with body image. On top of this, 21% of those said they did not feel comfortable talking to anyone about it. This means that approximately one out of every five men will be negatively affected by the enhanced snippets of the life and appearance of others online but they still suppress these feelings. It is not just an issue to which only women are vulnerable; it is a ubiquitous jealousy to all who use social media.
The United Kingdom’s Mental Health Ambassador, Dr Alex George, is due to visit the University of Leicester to talk to male students particularly to discuss the impacts of social media on mental health and the stigma behind men’s mental health. Since losing his brother to suicide nearly two years ago, Dr George has advocated for better mental health support in the United Kingdom. He has stated that “Ensuring young people can talk openly about mental health and have early access to mental health support is vital”. He hopes that students will develop positive mental health habits. If male students can learn to be open about when they need support means they are more likely to develop these positive mental health habits, thus dismantling the cruel and fabricated preconceptions of men’s mental health which have been years in the making.
So, what does this mean for progression in destigmatising men’s mental health? Dr Alex George’s university visit is a definite step forward, as being open about the issue at hand will inspire others to do the same. This seems to fit with the experiment carried out by the National Institute for Health Research, which explored how to get young men to be more open about their mental health. One conclusion was to use male role models, such as Dr George, to provide positive narratives of help-seeking. The other conclusions were:
- To protect male vulnerability by providing social support and a male-only space
- To offer brief sessions as well as informal opinions
- To explain to male students when and how to seek help
- To engage with males sensitively by not labelling them ‘mental health interventions’ and providing informal sessions.
When looking at these conclusions, it is clear that universities do not tend to promote their welfare services so that everybody feels comfortable attending them. A lot of men feel intimidated by the formality behind welfare services, and would naturally prefer something more casual, talking with other men so they feel they can personally relate, but still have an informative conversation so they can deal with problems healthily.
For Durham University particularly, it is the approach to advertising welfare services which should change to engage male students. While student-run college welfare is indeed very casual, it often advertises using language which can be interpreted negatively, deterring male students from attending. If sessions were branded as informal, friendly chats, there would be a higher chance of male engagement and so better educated on mental health and tackling it at low points. These are all things the university should consider as it looks to support young men at a formational and often vulnerable period of their lives.
Image: Christopher Lemercier via Unsplash