Mental health among men is a serious issue; the suicide rate among males is three times the female rate. So why are men so reluctant to seek help?
Research released earlier this year revealed three quarters of male students struggled to believe their friends had mental health issues, with 86% agreeing there is a stigma attached to mental health at university.
Research from The Priory Group
The survey also revealed one in five males frequently see other students being stigmatised for having a mental health condition – a figure almost double that of females who experienced it.
One leading mental health consultant, who works for The Priory, believed lad culture played a part in the stigmatisation, and could be adversely affecting men’s mental health.
The Huffington Post UK spoke to three men – one graduate and two current university students – who opened up about their experiences of lad culture, peer pressure and mental health.
Do you think young men come under pressure at uni?
Ed Pinkney: There is often a ‘macho’ culture on campuses, particularly for those young men involved in sports societies. This can bring pressure to conform and to conceal difficulties.
I’ve always been a little skeptical of attempts to distinguish between men’s mental health and women’s mental health, but the statistics consistently show higher rates of suicide amongst male students, so there does seem to be something going on. Having said that, rates of suicide in the general population are also higher amongst men, so it’s not necessarily something unique to universities.
Charlie Evans: Absolutely. Men come under the same sorts of pressures as women do; exam stress, concerns for the future, money, ‘fitting in’, homesickness, or a broader mental health condition. The problem with this is that men do not have as big a support network say than girls because of the stigma and the stereotypes.
Stefan Rollnick: I think everyone comes under pressure at university when it comes to mental health, but I think what I would say is that there are certain pressures that affect men in particular.
First year and even beyond can be a lonely time for many people, and I think being able to sit with friends, talk openly, and express emotion is a really big part of coming to terms with and getting over difficulties we face. This is something that isn’t accessible to many men, mainly due to dated assumptions about openness being a sign of weakness.
Stefan Rollnick, 19, is currently studying BioChem at the University of Bristol, and is deputy comment editor of Epigram newspaper, a freelance journalist and science writer.
“The effect lad culture has on men is often overlooked. Many guys often find that their self-esteem hangs in the balance depending on whether their personality is accepted by the wider culture.”
Do you think men are pressured to be ‘lads’ at uni?
EP: ‘Lad’ culture might play some part. But I don’t think heavy drinking and risky behaviours are characteristics of lad culture; they are just part of university culture. The real problem within laddish parts of campus seems to be discrimination.
At various times, each of us are vulnerable. If we’re part of a social circle that discriminates against vulnerability and discourages us from sharing struggles and seeking support then that’s not particularly healthy. This wasn’t something I experienced personally, but I was involved in a campaign to try and address the problem amongst student football and rugby teams.
CE: Men are pressured to be lads at uni, especially in sporting circles, and this pressure is more felt for first-year men as it is felt that in order to fit in, you must conform to the social norms of what a ‘young man’ is; drinking, one-night stands, being tough and strong, keeping in emotions and so on. It can make gay sporting men even more uncomfortable.
SR: Lad culture is obviously a huge threat to the experience of women at university, but I think the effect lad culture has on men is often overlooked. I think many guys within the culture, and outside it, often find that their self-esteem hangs in the balance depending on whether their personality is accepted by the wider culture.
As we all know, heavy drinking and clubbing is a core part of lad culture, and I think the pressure of this leads people to either doing stuff that makes them feel worse so they can fit in, or feeling alone as a result of not wanting to partake.
Ed Pinkney is a consultant for the Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention at Hong Kong University and is involved in launching a campaign to train students in peer-support skills to help make campuses less isolating and more friendly.
“There is often a ‘macho’ culture on campuses, particularly for those young men involved in sports societies.”
How did this pressure to be a “lad” affect you?
SR: Problems with self-esteem have played a big part in my university experience. As a guy who has a reputation among friends for being someone who ‘sleeps around’ (something which I get a disproportionate amount of credit for compared to like-minded girls), it has been very difficult for me to be open about struggles with my self-esteem.
You find yourself constantly thinking about what people might say if you told them: ‘what have you got to worry about’, ‘but you work so hard’, ‘how can you have low self-esteem, you’re always with a different girl’, when in reality you see yourself as burden to anyone you touch and this conflict of perception can leave you feeling really isolated.
CE: It puts pressure on you from day one, as it gives off the impression that this is what to be expected from you. In other social circles, the problem isn’t as significant. In political circles, there is more freedom of expression, and because we often discuss these topics, we are more sensitive to one another.
In general social life, this pressure can be felt in nightclubs and bars in particular. You have to be seen as someone who goes around and pulls all the girls in the club. And if you feel uncomfortable with that, you are considered strange or ‘gay’. This in spite of me being straight.
Charlie Evans, a 22-year-old final year at Exeter University, is studying Economics and Politics, and hopes to go into radio.
“You have to be seen as someone who goes around and pulls all the girls in the club. And if you feel uncomfortable with that, you are considered strange or ‘gay’.”
Did you experience any mental health issues while at university?
CE: I did. I had moments of loneliness throughout the first year and felt like I had no one to talk about my feelings, whereas back home with friends I could. New friends, new environment, etc. I started then developing really strange obsessional thoughts- started off with thinking that my family wouldn’t be alive by the time I went home next, and then manifested an obsession with my health.
I then took myself to A&E on numerous occasions thinking that my breathing was stopping, just for the staff there to tell me it was anxiety. It was a deeply isolating experience. And because of the stereotypes mentioned above, I kept it in and had no support network beyond my therapist and parents.
EP: I went through phases of feeling disconnected or unsupported as a student, particular during first year. It’s a new environment, there are thousands of people, and there is a lot of anxiety in the air, which is part of the reason students often drink a lot of alcohol.
During freshers’ week activities, I had such a fear of missing out that I barely slept or ate. I remember being in a pub one afternoon – perhaps the third day of freshers’ – and realising that, other than the fruit-and-nut bar that my mum had stuffed in my suitcase, I hadn’t eaten anything for two days.
I think most students probably have similar stories. It was freshers’ week the following year that I began to reflect on my own experiences, and recognised that students really need more support and guidance. I’d had gap year before studying where I became quite independent, and my family home was only an hour away from university so I could go home and relax any time I wanted, and yet even I had felt lost at times.
SR: Mental health has been a big part of my journey through university, but for everything it takes away in stress it gives back tenfold in perspective and useful life experience. During my first year anxiety was my main problem, adapting to a new environment whilst simultaneously trying to fit and make friends as quickly as possible.
Research from The Priory Group
Were you confident in seeking help?
SR: Personally I was pretty happy to seek help. I’ve got a really supportive network of family and friends who I knew would be 100% behind me all the way. I know that many people find this process very difficult, and whilst maybe not being able to relate, I can assure anyone who is thinking of asking for help that there is no way you will regret it. No matter how big or small you perceive the problem to be, you have a right to live a life of well-being – don’t let yourself get stuck in a rut.
CE: No. It took me a while to seek help. I put on a front that I was absolutely fine. A year later, I went to my doctor to seek this help and tried to put on this overtly confident front and the doctor saw through me and I broke down. That moment gave me the confidence to speak about my problems.
EP: My confidence in seeking help actually came from my housemate. He had broken up with his girlfriend and was feeling miserable, and so he went to speak with the counselling service. He was quite open about the experience, and said it was a relief to have someone who could help him get his thoughts and feelings out. I admired him for his openness, and he’s still a great friend of mine now.
I know for that others it’s harder to be open, though. There is often a very misguided view that strength comes from keeping things inside. Some might call this a British trait, but actually after visiting countries around Asia I’ve found that it’s often even more of a problem out there, particularly within families. As a country, we’re getting better at learning how to be open with others, and hopefully that will continue.
Research from The Priory Group
What would you like to see changed?
EP: As I’ve previously written about, universities used to value something called ‘pastoral care’ – which is basically the idea that educators have responsibility for the emotional needs of students.
That idea has been fading for years, and we need to bring it back. It’s going to require more funding for support services and training and monitoring of tutors. But with the size of universities and the scope of the problem, we also need students themselves to be playing an active role.
That’s been happening with student union mental health campaigns and peer support groups, but it’s still only a minority of students, and there are many areas of campus that are not getting the message – such as those mentioned earlier. I’ve always believed that each university is a community, but if we want them to feel that way then we need to build what psychologists call ‘social capital’ by making sure that every student (and, indeed, staff member) has a strong support network.
CE: More men need to come out and speak about their problems. It’s the only way this stigma will end. We need to be more kind to each other as well and need to make early-interventions as well to prevent standard stress in becoming something more serious.
SR: In terms of change, I think it probably has to come from within people, and this can definitely be helped by removing the stigma that surrounds mental health. Personally at the University of Bristol, the free services offered by the University are phenomenal, but massively under resourced. We need to put more money into helping people to look after their mental health in the same way they look after their physical health.
Finally, if I was to offer any advice to people, it would be to remember that as long as you’re happy – no one cares about what you do. It might feel like a really difficult decision to make when you’re being pressured to go out or do something when you’d rather be on your own, but just remember that 5 seconds after calling you ‘boring’, your friends will be worrying about their own problems again.
Do what makes you happy at the cost of everybody else’s expectations of you, whether it’s friends, teachers or parents.
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HuffPost UK is partnering with Southbank Centre’s Being A Man Festival, taking place 27 – 29 November. It will focus on lighthearted, serious and challenging issues facing boys and men in the 21st century. There will be talks and debates, concerts, performances, comedy and workshops with contributions from over 200 speakers and performers, including Akala, Frankie Boyle, David Baddiel and Kellie Maloney. Day passes are £15, 3-day passes are £35. For more information, visit the website or call 0844 847 9944.