Contextual; Men and Mental Health – The Benefits of Mindfulness

“Traditionally, men don’t like to talk about their feelings. So how do we go about helping those who prefer to stay silent about their mental health? Part of the solution may be mindfulness.”

Words by TIM BOXALL

As mental health has come more into the mainstream spotlight, there has been a recent surge in encouraging men to speak about their emotions, but there is still a high proportion of men who don’t feel comfortable opening up.

The Harmful Effects of Stigma

Strength, self-reliance, stoicism. For a long time in our society these values have been descriptors of masculinity. There has been an expectation that men should not admit if they’re struggling and should certainly avoid seeking support from others for fear that they would not be seen as masculine. According to Dr Wizdom Powell, an associate professor in the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill Department of Health Behaviour, this attitude often exacerbates any depressive symptoms that men may have because they will cut themselves off from any communities of supports that might help to cope with mental health issues. (http://www.apa.org, 2018)

This has been shown to be a large-scale problem. According to a survey on social support, men tend to feel a lot more socially isolated than women, with less social support from friends, relatives and the local community. (Webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk, 2013)

There are a plethora of statistics that show the damaging effect of traditional masculinity. A recent survey for the Mental Health Foundation found that nearly half of men (46%) with mental health concerns would be ‘embarrassed or ashamed to take time off work for a mental health concern such as anxiety or depression’. Another finding from the same survey was that men are much less likely to seek medical help for a mental health concern than women. (Menshealthforum.org.uk, 2016)

Our friends and family should be our first port of call if something is troubling us. However over one in three men (35%) have felt so uncomfortable opening up to those around to them that they have either waited over 2 years to say anything or have never spoken about the subject at all. (Mental Health Foundation, 2018)

For men who have been raised to not share their feelings, being told by mental health campaigns to start opening up may be a bit of a stretch for them. We cannot expect men to suddenly change the way they behave overnight. Perhaps the first step is to get men more comfortable understanding their own emotions and opening up to themselves. This may all sound like ‘hippy mumbo jumbo’ but it’s strongly supported by science.

Three men’s mental health awareness posters encouraging men to talk. Is this option realistic for all men?

What can Mindfulness-based therapies do?

There are two main types of professional mindfulness-based therapies: Mindfulness-based Stress Relief (MBSR) and Mindfulness-based Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (MCBT). Both are widely accepted as very effective ways to treat depression and anxiety. MBSR, for example, has been shown to reduce levels of anxiety by 58% (Bemindful.co.uk, 2018) while MCBT can reduce the chances of having a relapse into a depressive episode by 26%. (MacKenzie and Kocovski, 2016)

These two treatments generally require seeing a GP first – perhaps not a prospect that some men find appealing. However, there are other routes to becoming mindful. Meditation and yoga, for example.

Mindfulness is all about focussing on the present moment, taking stock of how your mind and your body is feeling, acknowledging your thoughts and emotions, and not trying to change them.

Self-guided meditation and mindfulness

Many studies show that practicing mindfulness is an effective way to treat depression and anxiety. Meditation has been found to have a lasting effect on two of the main regions of the brain responsible for depressive and anxious thoughts.

Mindfulness is definitely not a cure-all solution, but it is a tool that should be more accessible to those who are suffering from depression and anxiety – especially those who do not want to talk to anyone or do not have anyone to talk to.

The amygdala and the medial prefrontal cortex (the ‘fear centre’ and the ‘me centre’ of the brain) are two areas that become over-active in people with depression and anxiety. Meditation works to break down the connections between these two parts of the brain and therefore reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety. (Harvard Health, 2018) So why, given all the evidence, isn’t mindfulness more popular than it is?

Well, in a recent survey of people suffering from depression and/or anxiety, self-directed meditation came out as the third most common mode of treatment. So people are clearly giving it a go. However, when participants were asked which treatments were the most effective meditation came joint last alongside medication. This is not in line with the scientific evidence behind the use of mindfulness. What can be deduced from this is that meditation is a method that people are willing to try it out but it is not a treatment that they know how to do properly.

Without any face-to-face guidance on mindfulness and no reason to do it regularly other than self-discipline, it is tricky to get into the habit of being mindful. There are some apps out there teaching meditation, however they require a smartphone; a device that is known to often has a bad effect on the mental health of its users. Perhaps a new route to becoming mindful needs to be devised.