Men’s mental health issues: time to open up and talk about it

In the first of a four-part series examining mental-health problems among men, we speak to experts about the social stigma that makes men more reluctant than women to seek help.

Jared Alden, psychotherapist at the German Neuroscience Center in Dubai Healthcare City. Antonie Robertson / The National
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Twelve years ago, each November, men around the world began putting down their razors to take part in a movement.

“Movember” advocates growing a moustache – in the spirit of original “Mo Bros” such as Groucho Marx, Freddie Mercury, Tom Selleck and Burt Reynolds – to spread awareness about screening for prostate cancer and to raise funds for treatment and research into the disease.

In 2014 the Movember Foundation – a global charity set up in 2004 to raise funds and awareness for men’s health – began highlighting mental-health issues in addition to cancer awareness. It has since become the largest funder of targeted mental-health programmes for men, focusing on prevention, early intervention and stigma reduction.

In the West men are still reluctant to speak about their mental health issues, although a number of male celebrities have been speaking out on the issue lately.

Former One Direction member Zayn Malik, who cancelled his October 7 appearance in ­Dubai, has struggled to “overcome my extreme anxiety” about performing. He also ­recently confessed to having an eating disorder during the band’s heyday.

In September, 2012 The X ­Factor winner James Arthur ­admitted his anxiety was once so severe he called for an ambulance because he believed he was ­having a heart attack.

Read more: Observing life: The powerful impact that words can have on a child

Last month, the 28-year-old star was named ambassador for a UK mental-health charity, SANE.

“Unfortunately, mental illness remains a taboo subject and having suffered with severe anxiety and depression myself, I desperately want to encourage people to see the immense power in speaking about whatever may be going on in their heads,” he said.

Actors Jon Hamm, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and Brad Pitt are among those who have been candid about their past bouts of depression.

The Movember Foundation believes that as society becomes more ­complex, more men experience ­mental-health difficulties, with suicide rates increasing and more men being diagnosed with depression and anxiety. According to Movember, men “struggling with their mental well-being ­remain hidden from services and are not being adequately supported or reached with current ­mental-health ­provision”.

“That’s absolutely true, especially in the UAE and in the Middle East as a region,” says Jared Alden, who is on leave from his work as a psychotherapist at the German Neuroscience Center in Dubai. “It’s been considered a ­taboo subject for far too long and if we continue to pretend it doesn’t exist, men will continue to suffer with worsening symptoms.”

Alden says that men tend to think that if they ignore emotional issues, they will go away, which is why they often wait until the situation is intolerable before seeking help.

“I see many men in my practice, yet not in line with our population, which is heavily male,” he says. “Even in Dubai, men still avoid seeking treatment. I will often see men who have ­suffered for years with anxiety and ­depression.”

Alden says more mental-health services, internationally recognised specialists, and support groups are needed to address treatment for, and the stigma associated with, psychological disorders such as depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

“Men in particular are always our lowest percentage of patients,” he says. “It’s considered a sign of weakness for a man to get physically ill, so can you imagine owning up to mental illness?”

Randa El Zein, the founder of the Be You International life coaching and empowerment centre in Abu Dhabi, says that for every 10 women who seek her help, she sees only one man.

“Men are different than women,” she says. “They like to do things, fix things, find solutions. They talk shoulder-to-shoulder, not face-to-face. They are also more emotionally isolated, locking away their emotions, which is a result of our parenting. We’re the ones that tell them from a young age: ‘Boys don’t cry’. They grow up believing that emotional expression or mental need is a female label.” Male Emirati clients are extremely rare, adds El Zein. The workshops she ­conducts are always mostly­ ­attended by women.

Yet studies have shown a much higher rate of suicide worldwide among men than among women. Dr Hana’a Al Husseini, a specialist psychiatrist in Sharjah, believes this holds true for the UAE as well, despite a worrying lack of research and data.

“Patients come in complaining of heart spasms or dizzy spells, and the underlying cause may be panic attacks and anxiety,” she says. “So their GP or internist might recommend them to see a psychiatrist or psychologist – a mental-health specialist.

“But there’s no one following up to see if these patients do what they are told. Do they come to see us or are they afraid and misinformed and unbelieving that their issue is a mental and not physical? We have no idea.”

Not having anyone they feel safe talking to, patients can then succumb to depression and suicidal thoughts, says Al Husseini.

“There is a lack of social support for men specifically,” she says. “They don’t seek help when social stressors – such as family breakdown or overwork or employment security – become too much for them. Sometimes, they turn to alcohol and drugs instead, which increases the problem. It’s a downwards spiral.”

Dr Fatima Al-Darmaki, assistant provost for student affairs and associate professor of counselling psychology at Zayed University-Abu Dhabi, has been working for years to eliminate the social stigma associated with mental-health issues.

“There is a need in the UAE to accept people – both men and women – living with mental illness and to eliminate feelings of shame, prejudice and hopelessness,” she says.

Students at the university are encouraged to seek psychological and counselling services for problems that might affect their academic performance negatively, but female students are much more likely to do so than males.

“There is a need for raising awareness, definitely,” says Al-Darmaki.

What men need to be most aware of, writes clinical psychologist Sarah El Nabulsi in a newsletter issued by the American Center for Psychiatry and Neurology in Abu Dhabi, is that therapy really works. “Psychotherapy alone or ­combined with medication are effective across all ­mental-health disorders and in alleviating symptoms and achieving recovery,” she says.

Alden agrees, adding that part of the reason he sees so few male patients is because they believe their condition cannot be treated.

“In truth, most conditions respond very quickly to treatment,” he says. “So really, it’s about time we start talking about men’s mental health and making it a priority.”

This article has been amended to reflect that Jared Alden is on leave from the German Neuroscience Center in Dubai.

Get help

Recognise an emergency

Feeling suicidal, believing one’s self to be in a crisis, experiencing a severe panic attack or having a breakdown are all emergencies that warrant a visit to your closest emergency room. The staff will take it from there.

Pay attention, take action and don’t put it off.

Start with your family doctor or visit a clinic. Get help from a psychiatrist, psychologist or therapist, and the sooner the better, so treatment can start and reassurance can set in.

Call or contact a hotline

• One such service is Twitter account Suicide Help Dubai (@SuicideDubai), who welcome private messages on Twitter and are already ready to help. Or you can call 800 4634.

• The suicide hotline of the Indian Workers Resources Centre (IWRC), an Indian Embassy-run service that provides free counselling services to expatriates, can be reached at 800 46342.

Contact one of these centres across the UAE

• The American Center for Psychiatry and Neurology with clinics in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah, 02 697 9999.

• The Carbone Clinic in Dubai for children and adolescents, 04 453 9810.

• The German Neuroscience Center in Dubai, 04 4298 578.

• The Psychiatry and Mental Health Center at the Saudi German Hospital in Dubai, 04 389 0000.

• Al Amal Psychiatric Hospital in Dubai, 04 344 4010.

• Maudsley Child and Adolescent International Hospital in Abu Dhabi, 02 666 2655.

• The Neuron Psychological Care Center in Abu Dhabi, 02 626 0774.

• Visit for more information