Clinical Psychologist Dr Morwenna Opie-Moran from Duchy Hospital speaks to us about a men's mental health crisis for Movember. Having worked with many people I believe that we are all seeking three basic things; to feel loved as we are, to feel valued for what we do, and to experience a sense of belonging. Unfortunately, we often make it extremely difficult for ourselves. As we consider the epidemic of mental health challenges amongst men, let’s examine some factors at play in each of these three areas.
It is risky to rely only on one thing outside your control to feel good about yourself. If we only value ourselves based on our job, for example, if it goes wrong, or we reach retirement, we can feel worthless. Also, if we only place worth on one goal, if we get stressed we are less likely to do the broad range of things that help us at these times, such as exercise, eating well, sleeping well, keeping sociable, and doing hobbies.
You are more resilient if you identify and appreciate several internal and personal strengths. These include things like being kind, hardworking, or having a positive attitude. Women are more likely to do this, perhaps in part to do with enduring gendered stereotypes, pressures and expectations. Female friends are also more likely to say that they value and appreciate each other and why.
Takeaway: Identify the many things that are important to you to do and to be; and make sure you give some time and attention to them all each week. Regularly feedback to yourself about how you are doing at being the person you are deciding you want to be.
This is also important when you're experiencing strong emotions, doing things like taking deep breaths, meditation, enjoying hobbies, or spending time outdoors can help you relax and feel better. If we are not careful, the current 24 hour society of work and social comparison can have our threat drive system pumping all day and night long. To counter getting overwhelmed and burnt out we actively need to stitch that system off, and find ways to feel calm and switch off that we enjoy. Seriously consider a set ‘digital sunset’ time, when you close down screens. Then your mind and body learn when they can slip into a ‘rest and restore’ mode, and ultimately an essential good nights quality sleep.
Takeaway: finding ways to pull in calm and focus on something that helps you switch off from life’s stressors isn’t indulgent, its critical for maintaining psychological and physical health.
We all need social connections. Spending time with friends and family, doing activities you enjoy, and building strong relationships are essential for happiness.
We are effectively herd mammals, and loneliness is hugely stressful for us and our physiology. For complex reasons women are more likely to be a part of more social groups than men, and historical settings where some connections were accessible to men have changed or become harder to access (including pubs, working men’s clubs, churches).
We learn from research that people experiencing high stress environments can prevent that causing them health consequences by discussing that stress with people who care. Sadly, the notion that it is unmanly to discuss feelings is taking time to shift, but it is exceptionally important for us to understand our feelings, and discuss them. Feeling isolated is as damaging for our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being morbidly obese and is highly associated with depression and suicide. A feeling of over-coming adversity as a team actually boosts our immune system and our quality of life beyond experiencing no stressors at all.
Takeaway: Social time should be considered an essential part of our health regime.
To be loveable and loved
Perhaps the most important task of all for our mental health is to develop self-acceptance. Without it we will not feel that we belong, are of value, or that we are worthy of love. Unfortunately, the idea of having loving acceptance of ourselves is an uncomfortable one for many British people, and men in particular. We seem to mistakenly think this will make us arrogant and unambitious. In truth, over time criticising ourselves and shaming self-talk can be extremely damaging. Research shows us that liking yourself, is the prelude to a healthy and sustainable relationship with others and is associated with success in many aspects of life. It enables us not to not take things too personally or make assumptions, and therefore helps us stay calm and open enough to navigate all sorts of difficult and uncomfortable situations wisely. It also makes it unlikely that we talk in a shaming, critical or judgmental way to others, which over time damages those all-important connections with others.
Takeaway: Be your best champion! We need to be more aware of what we are saying to ourselves, talking to ourselves more like we would to a young person we wanted to encourage, rather than talking to ourselves in the style of a harsh relentless critic. This is as exhausting and unhelpful for us as we know it would be if another person followed us around all day long doing so.
The idea that you are not enough - that you are unlovable, do not belong or are not of value generally has an origin in childhood or from trauma. If these types of thoughts are fairly regular visitors in your internal chatter, is probably worth considering addressing them in a safe therapeutic space with a registered psychologist or therapist with who you feel able to build a good rapport.