Men and Mental Health: Questioning the Data

Mental health in MenANumerous studies over the decades show a clear indication that women tend to exhibit higher rates of some mental health issues than men. An analysis of data from the World Health Organization by Daniel Freeman, a Professor of Clinical Psychology and MRC Senior Clinical Fellow at Oxford University, showed that women have significantly higher rates of all the most common psychological disorders, such as depression, anxiety, sleep problems, sexual problems, and eating disorders.

As researchers drill further into the details however, many questions arise about how cultural stereotypes, societal expectations and personal ideas of the male role, may impact the statistics and how we interpret the data. To put it simply, are men exhibiting less mental health issues or simply reporting them less frequently?

Before addressing that question it’s worth looking at some of the data researchers have about mental health disorders in men that are more clear cut. One out of every twenty men report symptoms of depression, and 14% of men experience anxiety disorders. Almost three quarters of all suicides are committed by men. 87% of adults experiencing “rough sleep” are men. Men are nearly 50% more likely than women to be detained and treated compulsorily as psychiatric inpatients. And men tend to exhibit significantly higher rates of alcoholism, substance abuse and some personality disorders such as antisocial behavior.

Overall, individuals who have gone through a divorce have a higher risk of depression than those who have never married or are currently married. Statistics indicate however that men are more likely than women to suffer depression after a divorce. Likewise, loss of job, retirement and other life-altering events appear to trigger mood disorders more frequently in men than women.

Despite the statistics, studies of men’s mental health are difficult and complex. Researchers point to the differences in male attitudes toward mental health and social sigma as contributors to the problem. In a panel discussion, “Men’s health in the new millennium,” at the Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, Roderick Hetzel, PhD, explored men’s body image concerns, how men manage cancer, why men are not involved in family planning and a host of other men’s health-related issues. Many men, for instance, don’t get regular checkups because they “avoid the vulnerability and passivity inherent in the patient role,” explained Hetzel. Men also have traditionally shied away from mental health therapy because talking about their feelings was viewed as negative, non-masculine and contrary to the robust male image. The panelists all agreed on one thing: The pressure men feel to live up to the macho image is literally making them sick.

The connection between mental illness and substance abuse is well documented in the medical community, whereby, rather than seeking help, patients use alcohol and drugs to mask the mental health symptoms that they find disruptive or uncomfortable. Men are nearly three times more likely than women to become alcohol dependent, and more than three times as likely to report frequent drug use as women. When considering the lower rates of overall reported mental heath issues in men, one must consider the possibility that men under-report mental heath issues and more frequently “self-medicate” with alcohol or drugs.

Men may be more willing to report fatigue, irritability, loss of interest in work or hobbies, and sleep disturbances rather than feelings of sadness, worthlessness, and excessive guilt. These exemplify the delicate balance between which “flaws” are considered socially acceptable for men to talk about, and which are not. On the balance, researchers admit that the social pressure men feel to hide what may be perceived as weakness, likely results in a significant degree of under-reported mental health issues. In the absence of reliable data, it’s just not possible to know how big a role male under-reporting plays.

On one point the data is undeniable: The need to address mental health in men in a way that men will respond to is critically important if we are to reduce the high rates of substance abuse and suicide. Research, for instance, shows that men can positively influence each other through group discussions about mental health. Studies have found that men are less likely to report pain when they are in front of a female clinician–a finding that points to the possibility that men may be more honest about their condition with other men.

It would be unlikely that the statistics on the prevalence of mental health in men would improve if the public expectations of traditional male roles were to change. More likely, the data would indicate levels of depression, anxiety and sleep disorders more on par with that of women. But if men were more willing to talk about these issues, it’s also possible some of the frequent outcomes of untreated mental health issues – alcoholism and suicide – would be reduced.

In the face of very real social and cultural concepts about men and mental health, men may find it particularly difficult to seek help out of fear of others finding out. Privacy and confidentiality therefore is especially important. Capital EAP provides assistance on the phone, through the web and in person, with strict confidentiality. Men can contact Capital EAP for more information without anyone knowing; including a spouse. Learn more in the pages of this website or call us at (518) 465-3813.