In recent years, it has become increasingly common to speak openly about mental health.
Whether sparked by the Covid-19 pandemic or our long-awaited realisation of the topic’s importance, the change has been good.
In fact, such conversations about feelings and emotions are being had by more unlikely participants — men — who have been, for the most part, “socialised to this narrow idea of what it means to be masculine,” according to clinical psychologist Dr Saliha Afridi.
A conditioning, Afridi tells The National, that has taught men “vulnerability is a weakness”.
Afridi's comments come as the world wraps up a month-long heightened awareness campaign of men's health issues for Movember.
“Messages like ‘be a man’, ‘be strong’ or ‘man up’ have conditioned men’s perspective of what is suitable for them to express," says Afridi, who is also the managing director of The LightHouse Arabia in Dubai.
“Generally speaking, mental health conditions are underdiagnosed in men, and that is probably because men are not going out to seek help or they are not self-reporting.
“There's a big stigma around men being able to reach out and say: ‘I need to talk to someone about what I'm going through.'”
Attending to mental health becomes even more urgent when suicide rates come into the picture. According to the World Health Organisation, one person takes their own life every 40 seconds. And in every one of them, there may be more than 20 other attempts.
Suicide rates among men were four times higher in 2020 than the rate among females, according to data from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in the US. This is in part because men are less likely to seek social or psychological support.
“Men report significantly lower life satisfaction and significantly lower access to social support — friends, relatives, communities” Afridi says. “There's just no space for them to feel that kind of support.”
Afridi says she has seen a marked difference before and after the peak of the pandemic in 2020, when more people — both men and women — talked about how they were feeling during the Covid-induced social isolation.
“I’ve been here now for 14 years, and from running a practice, I’ve definitely seen that it’s becoming a lot more acceptable for men to go see a psychologist,” she says.
“It's being normalised a little bit more, but we still have a very long way to go.”
It takes a village
Afridi also echoes what many experts have long said about mental health — that it’s a responsibility of communities, whether in the office or at home.
“We need to create a psychologically safe environment where it is OK for people to talk about their mental health," she says.
This speaks more to leaders who should “model for people a sense of safety and to show that it’s a human trait for us to struggle.”
However, she says it might not be enough for people to just realise they are unwell. “I still think there is a massive stigma about people going to see a psychologist. Removing this stigma becomes the obligation of everyone, whether you are a parent, a company or a government leader.”
Parenting, she adds, also makes a huge difference in people’s approach to mental health.
“How do we parent our children? How am I raising my boys? Am I telling them that it is OK to feel? Am I telling them that it is OK to cry? Am I making it OK for them to live in harmony with all parts of themselves? That becomes an obligation as a parent.”
Self-help tips in taking care of your mental health as a man
1. Develop an emotional vocabulary
“Men should familiarise themselves with the language of feelings — it's a whole language, and it's a language they aren't familiar with,” Afridi says.
She recommends men actively try and develop their emotional intelligence, and be conscious about their feelings when faced with triggers.
“There's a big difference between saying 'I feel angry', versus 'I feel betrayed'. There's a big difference between 'I'm aggrieved', versus 'I am sad'. How do you describe what you're going through?
“To have a granular emotional vocabulary is very much linked to you being in command of your internal emotional world.”
2. Increase your window of tolerance for difficult emotions
“Most men use the defence of intellectualising, denying or projecting a lot of what is difficult [for] them,” she says.
Afridi says this can cause a man to “systematically desensitise” himself.
“When learning ways of coping, softening and tolerating, you're developing a muscle that you need in order to go through difficult experiences that bring up difficult emotions.
“For example, when you see a movie and tears come up, allow yourself to express a little bit — maybe have the tears roll down instead of holding them back. Or if you see something that opens your heart, really savour that feeling.”
3. Consider somatic-experiencing activities
“Men have dissociated from their physical bodies for a long time because the body houses a lot of our emotions,” Afridi says. “I think it's important to create safety within the physical body for men.”
Related activities include breathwork, stretching, trauma-informed yoga, as well as tremor release therapies, “the types of things where you're literally working life back into the body”.
Men should “reconnect with the parts of themselves that they have lost through socialisation, which is mostly the body”.