As men, we tend to take risks. We push limits as we fight, race, jump, ride, play, and work to extremes. Marketing campaigns targeting young men in particular play on this attribute. I don’t consider myself particularly stupid or a particularly big risk taker but in the course of my life I’ve ridden a motorbike at 220kph on the freeway, nearly drowned in big surf, had my shin bone sticking out of my skin from a fall riding a skateboard ramp, and nearly run myself over in my own car (that one took some creativity and nearly qualified for a Darwin Award!).
Have you ever wondered why we do this? Professor Baumeister  argues that culture treats men as expendable in a strategy which throws men toward high risk activities. He says that, from an evolutionary point of view in which sexual reproduction is the measure of success, “to maximize reproduction, a culture needs all the wombs it can get, but a few penises can do the job”. This leads to many high risk behaviours. According to this view, we are risking our very selves for a chance at achieving big payoffs (power, resources, money, and ultimately, women and their offspring). It is an interesting point of view and I think partially helps explain the value we place on masculinity.
Service the machine
This may have worked for the survival of our species but it may not work for us in our lives right now. The problem for us as individuals is that, perhaps due to natural selection (including interplay with culture), we continue to put our health at risk. There are other, less obviously radical but still extreme risks we take such as working too many hours, neglecting chronic health problems, and drinking too much. Many men won’t think twice about working 50 or 60 hour or longer weeks but “don’t have time” to visit the GP. We tend to delay seeing the doctor until there is an obvious problem that can no longer be avoided and we’re not as good as women at ongoing preventative and health-promoting behaviours. In so doing, we risk acute or chronic repercussions on our health.
We take our cars to the mechanic regularly, but neglect to service ourselves, run our engines hard, forget to change the oil and filters, ignore the warning lights on the dash and the smoke out of the pipes. All cars need maintenance, and high performance engines need even more attention.
We also tend to avoid managing our mental health. Similar to our approach to physical health, many of us wait until it is unavoidable before seeing a psychologist or talking to our GP about mental and emotional problems. In our analogy, if our physical health is the car body and engine, our mental and emotional health is what’s going on in the interior. It’s difficult to get where you need to go when you’re hungry and tired, the seat’s the wrong height, the windscreen’s dirty, the mirrors are pointing in the wrong direction, you’re lost and the map is outdated, the navigator has stopped talking to you, and the kids are screaming in the back. Seeing a psychologist is about ‘Stopping, Reviving, and Surviving’ and sorting all that stuff out.
What’s crazy is that many men will just keep on driving when they could take a bit of time, pull into a service station and fix the car and sort out the mess. Of course, this isn’t always the case; there are plenty of men who do attend to their psychological wellbeing. Seventy percent of my clients are men, so not all of us are pushing on, just trying to ‘get there’. However, the research shows that many men avoid seeking mental health assistance because of fear of feeling weak or vulnerable, denial, a need for control, or an ‘It won’t happen to me’ attitude .
Road accidents statistics
Although the statistics show that women have higher rates of depression and anxiety than men, there are still a significant number of us who do have depression, anxiety, relationship, or another psychological problem. In any given year, about 11% of men will have a diagnosable anxiety problem and about 5% will have depression . Compared to women we have more problems with alcohol and drugs, significantly less contact with family and friends, higher rates of psychotic illnesses, and a suicide rate that is tragically four times higher.
We drive a little differently
Interestingly, doctors admit that they find it harder to diagnose depression in men than in women . Partly this is because men experience depression somewhat differently and communicate it differently. Compared to women, men may not be as aware of how they feel, yet may find themselves socially isolated, drinking more, or taking more drugs or more risks. Men are less likely to ask for help, talk about it, or cry . This makes it more difficult to identify depression in men and makes it less likely that appropriate help will be available.
We experience many of the life problems that women do, yet the way we experience them is a little different. For example, although most people who have lost a loved one experience excruciating sadness, loneliness, and a broken heart, men tend more than women to grieve in a manner which has been termed ‘instrumental grieving’. This involves more working through the grief cognitively and a more action-oriented and problem solving approach with less obvious expression of emotion such as crying, which is the traditional view of the bereaved . Radical new risks
Being aware of our tendency to tough it out, to push ourselves to the limit, is helpful because it means we needn’t be controlled by it. It’s possible to make conscious choices in maintaining a functional life and caring for ourselves. It’s even possible to have an exciting a fun journey when you’ve found out where you are, you’re refreshed, fuelled up, the passengers are happy, and you know where you’re going.
So how do you know when to stop, revive, survive? Well, there are too many possible symptoms to provide a comprehensive list here, but you should talk to your GP or a psychologist if you are concerned. Certainly you should do so if you have overwhelming feelings or concerns, are isolated, feel empty, run down, irritable, agitated, anxious, confused, you do things you cannot control, your behaviour has changed for the worse, you have been violent, drinking more, taking more drugs, have problems in your relationship or changes in sleep patterns, appetite or libido.
Talk honestly and openly with your GP; if you don’t explain the problem clearly to your mechanic, how can you expect them to fix it? If you don’t have a GP or psychologist you feel confident in and that you can trust, go find one. If you are taking risks with your life, or think about suicide, you should call Lifeline or the Men’s Line immediately (of course, if you are feeling suicidal right now, go to Accident and Emergency at your local hospital or call 112* / 000 / 911).
The weird thing about it is that although we love taking risks, we hesitate when it comes to taking the emotional and mental risk involved in admitting we need some assistance and seeking psychological support. It takes acknowledging that we don’t know exactly where we are or how to get where we’re trying to go. Sometimes it’s easier and quicker to just pull over and ask for directions. Now that’s a risk of an entirely different kind! It’s pretty radical, really.
* 122 is a common emergency number that can be dialled free of charge from most mobile telephones and, in some countries, with no SIM card or by fixed phones to reach emergency services (ambulance, fire and rescue, police). It is the common emergency number in India and in nearly all member states of the European Union as well as several other countries of Europe and the world. 112 is often available alongside other numbers traditionally used in the given country to access emergency services (source: Wikipedia article).
Note: This blog post written to support Australian Men’s Health Week, June 11-17, 2012.
Men’s Health Week: http://www.menshealthweek.org.au
Men's Line: www.mensline.org.au 1300 78 99 78
Lifeline: www.lifeline.org.au 13 11 14
Suicide Call Back Service: www.suicidecallbackservice.org.au 1300 659 467
Good Therapy: http://www.goodtherapy.com.au
APS Find a Psychologist: www.psychology.org.au/findapsychologist
Psychologist, Dr Jack Dunphy: www.jack-dunphy.com
1. Baumeister, R.F. Is There Anything Good About Men?: American Psychological Association, Invited Address. 2007; Available from: http://aimhs.com.au/cms/index.php?page=good-about-men.
2. Wilhelm, K.A., Men and depression. Australian Family Physician, 2009. 38(3).
3. Slade, T., et al., The mental health of Australians 2. Report on the 2007 National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing. . 2009, Department of Health and Ageing: Canberra. Available from: http://www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/content/mental-pubs-m-mhaust2
4. Lyons, Z. and A. Janca, Diagnosis of male depression: Does general practitioner gender play a part? Australian Family Physician, 2009. 38(9).
5. Doka, K.J. and T.L. Martin, Grieving Beyond Gender: Understanding the Ways Men and Women Mourn. 2nd ed. 2010, New York: Routledge.