Focusing on Mental Health is a Sign of Strength
Updated: Nov 25, 2022
For more helpful blog posts or to book an appointment click on the link here: Tim Robinson Counsellor- men's wellbeing Christchurch.
I have done academic research on this topic which you can view here:
Men’s Internal Struggle in Accessing Therapy
My research was born out of my experience counselling men for a number of years, yet similar statements are echoed today. I would often hear: “I wanted to be able to do it on my own, but in the end I just couldn’t”; “I didn’t tell my friends because I was worried of what they would think of me”; “I wanted to express my feelings but felt like it was a weakness”; “I wasn’t sure what I felt, I just knew something wasn’t right”; “I felt like I shouldn’t need help”.
This was so common I decided to conduct research on the topic (Traditional masculinity and counselling: a study of traditional masculine norms in New Zealand and their influence on men’s engagement in individual counselling services. (canterbury.ac.nz)
I wanted to understand if it was a characteristic of my clients specifically, or a sentiment shared among men more broadly. Interestingly, some of the professionals around me had their doubts about me finding anything from my research, and one professional made the mistake of thinking I was studying “toxic masculinity”.
The goal of my research had nothing to do with “toxic masculinity”, I never used the term, and I certainly wasn’t studying it. My interest was in increasing counselling engagement for men. I was acutely aware of the high suicide rates among men in New Zealand. I was concerned that if men found it hard to talk about their struggles (to their mates/family/doctor etc), felt they had to be strong (as this is what traditional masculine norms tend to dictate) and felt “weak” in reaching out for help, where does that leave counselling? After all, counselling is supposed to be one of the services specifically designed to help them.
I was interested in how services could be better tailored towards men so they engage, and wanted to understand how I as a counsellor, and society more broadly, we could “smash” this myth that seeking help was “weak”. The quite brilliant men that contributed to my research gave me some wonderful insights, and I thank them for the vulnerability in participating. Below are some brief thoughts based on the results of my research.
Mental Wellbeing - A Worthwhile Investment
I’m not saying this so you work with me; or any counsellor for that matter. It is your choice as to how you look after your mental health. I am saying that looking after your mental health is just as important as looking after your physical health. I’m sure plenty of men reading this have joined gyms, done exercise, played sports, and understand the benefit of physical health. We don’t seem to give equal attention to our mental health. I will assume that if you sustained an injury during physical activity, you would happily go to your doctor. If he asked you to participate in physiotherapy, rehabilitation or have an operation, you would willingly attend without fear of stigma. This doesn’t seem to be the case for mental health, especially for men.
We accept our physical limitations and do all that we can to help rest and repair. Let’s now compare that to mental health. You may have felt depressed/anxious lately due to a loved one passing; you’ve lost a job, had a separation, haven’t managed to gain employment in a timely manner, or are unhappy with where you find yourself in life in general. You may have always felt in control, yet anxiety has crept up on you. Tasks that used to feel easy suddenly feel very uncomfortable, or maybe anxiety is so consuming you can’t leave the house. Is your first instinct to tell the doctor? Do you immediately get in touch with a health professional? If you do that’s fantastic! Good on you for reaching out. It doesn’t seem to be the norm though, and it should be. There doesn’t need to be a distinction between how much attention we give our mental wellbeing vs. our physical health.
If we parallel this with the physical injury example, what do you do in that situation? Do you ring the doctor straight away? Get help as soon as you can? Or are you filled with thoughts of “it’s nothing it’ll pass”; “I am struggling but I’m worried what my mates are going to think”; “I just need to grin and bare it, I can do this on my own”; “if I say I’m struggling people will think less of me”; “I don’t want to bother others so I’ll say nothing”. Comparatively, there seems to be a huge “gulf” in the way we approach these two scenarios as men. Why not reach out for help? How is mental wellbeing any different to physical wellbeing? Yet the spoken or unspoken messages we receive about both scenarios don’t seem equal, fair or useful for our overall health.
That is why I believe it is such strength to reach out and ask for help. It is why I admire the men who do. You are fighting against all the societal messages I just wrote above. The men who come to see me have often had that same internal battle, yet they still came to therapy. That is incredibly strong. It’s not easy to go against the tide, it’s incredibly difficult. If it were easy I wouldn’t have men expressing they felt weak or “less than” for doing so and sadly, often by the time they do they are at the end of their tether.
Strength is both Mental and Physical
What could be more powerful than feeling confident, secure, self-assured and knowing what you want out of life? What could be more fulfilling than feeling you are living with purpose, clarity and living consistently with your values? How would you experience being able to manage your levels of distress well, understand why you feel the way you do, and know what you need to do to change all that? How would it feel to have a clear vision of what you want to gain out of life and put the behaviours in place to achieve it?
After considering these questions how do you feel? Did they feel they were coming from a place of weakness or did you envision a man who is strong in control, secure and enjoying life? I think somewhere along way we lost our way and when you look at it in detail our approach isn’t even logical.
Counselling is simply a process of gaining understanding about yourself, helping you decide what you want, how you feel and then taking action to move forward. There’s no weakness in doing that. In fact it’s the kindest and most strength inducing thing you could do for yourself. We just aren’t taught that growing up. Physicality fades with age. Your mental state is with you forever, every hour of every day. Why wouldn’t you ensure that what’s going in is supportive, empowering and worthwhile? You owe it to yourself to give it some attention and once you do you will be stronger for it.
The Chain Reaction of Change
One of the wonderful things I often hear is that once a guy seeks therapy and the “mystery” of it is completely blown away (no white lab coats here!) he will often say he has gone on to help his son, colleague, friend, father or grandfather. Sometimes this isn’t even said out loud. In response to seeing one man gain happiness, control and security he subconsciously gives permission to others to do the same. In my research, nearly every man said they would have been encouraged to engage in therapy if they knew another guy that had gone through it, or if they saw more positive experiences from “everyday” men expressed in the media or ad campaigns. I think the more we help men engage, the more this will flow on to greater acceptance in regards to counselling and help-seeking in general. This is already happening to an extent with the likes of John Kirwan and Mike King (celebrity advocates for mental health for those not in New Zealand) and promotions by mental health groups/advocates.
In addition, several of the men I interviewed said it was hard to know where to start looking for therapy or hard to find what they were looking for when they did look. I believe a combination of increased acceptance of therapy and more male-centric services will go a long way to changing mental health outcomes for men in New Zealand. It just takes a few brave men to step forward and set an example.
Be part of the solution. Be strong enough to take the lead and ask for help. You will be creating a great example for the men around you and in time; hopefully they will give more attention to their mental wellbeing like you have.
Look after yourself Lads.
Tim Robinson – Counsellor
MCouns. Msc Psych. PGDipHealSc (Health Behaviour Change)
Registered Provisional Member with NZAC
For more helpful blog posts or to book an appointment visit: www.timrobinsoncounsellor.com