UAE experts insist mental health ‘is also a male issue’

Experts have called for a great focus on men’s mental health, saying disorders such as depression or anxiety are often mistakenly believed to be a female issues.

ABU DHABI // Experts are calling for a greater focus on men’s mental health, with disorders such as depression or anxiety often mistakenly believed to be female issues.

Health professionals say men are less willing to seek help, despite adolescent males and older men being the two top-risk groups for major depressive disorders and suicidal tendencies.

“Reasons for the widespread assumption that women suffer more psychological distress than men come down to cultural and social influences about gender differences and how men and women process and cope with psychological distress,” said Deema Sihweil, a clinical psychologist in Dubai.

“In most western and Middle East cultures, men are typically socialised at a very young age that expressing emotions, discussing problems and seeking social and emotional support can hinder academic, career and relationship success.

“Underestimating the grave consequences of untreated psychological disorders like depression can have devastating and often fatal outcomes, as we have tragically seen in the Germanwings airline crash.”

She said boys were taught to “toughen up”, that “talking is for girls” or that “boys don’t cry”, and these beliefs stay throughout adulthood.

“While men and women are neurobiologically different in many respects, all people have emotional brains, struggle with problems in life, and suffer from the full range of psychological disorders.

“It is how men and women are taught to address social, emotional and psychological experiences and over the years mental health issues have been wrongly assumed to be a predominantly female experience.”

The importance of treating mental health problems in general are still underestimated, said Dr Sihweil.

“The perception of psychological disorders has been completely warped over the past several decades, deemed as insignificant, not serious enough to warrant medication or psychotherapy or simply dismissed as being a character weakness instead of a true and painful injury.”

Dr Ahmed Ahmed, a specialist psychiatrist at the American Centre for Psychiatry and Neurology, said mental health disorders among men are often underreported and underestimated. A genuine mood disorder might often be dismissed as a man being irritable or violent.

Dr Ahmed said that while women could be more prone to depression and anxiety, more men were likely to commit suicide, with factors such as low social-economic class and divorce often factors.

A report on suicide by the World Health Organisation found that more men across the world take their own lives than women. In richer countries, three times as many men die by suicide than women. Men aged 50 years and over are particularly vulnerable.

Dr Nadia Dabbagh, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Rashid Hospital in Dubai, found that mental illness was often thought of as a sign of weakness or of being unmanly.

“There remains a considerable stigma attached to suffering from a mental illness,” Dr Dabbagh said.

Triggers for depression or anxiety can include a family history of them, a negative childhood experience, stress factors at home, in the family or workplace, physical ill-health and some medications, she said.

Jared Alden, a psychotherapist at the German Neuroscience Centre in Dubai, also found that men were far less likely to seek help, opting instead to suffer in silence.

“This means if and when men do seek treatment their symptoms are going to be more severe,” he said. “They will often wait until they can’t tolerate their symptoms any more. Men have to stop thinking that if they ignore their symptoms they will eventually go away.

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

Many men believe that their condition cannot really be treated and so there is no point in going to a doctor, said Mr Alden.

“In truth, most conditions respond very quickly to treatment.”