Strategies men can use to attain and maintain good mental health

Men hide or downplay their mental health issues and status due to socio-cultural realities that have a negative impact on their mental health. [iStockphoto]

When you ask most people in our communities what it means to be a man, you will get answers such as “a man should not show emotions,” or “a man should always be strong.”

All these are social and gender role expectations assigned to men which have put them under immense pressure with no means to express themselves emotionally or psychologically.

A man in our cultural context is expected to be self-reliant, stoic and invulnerable. As a result, many men hide or downplay their mental health issues and status due to these socio-cultural realities that have negative impact on their mental health. They struggle to deal with failure, shame, disappointment, rejection and ignorance since it is unacceptable for them to grieve their losses and trauma.

Depression, according to the World Health Organisation, is one of the leading causes of disability worldwide. Research shows that a huge proportion of men in Kenya suffer from undetected and untreated depression, as well as other mental illnesses like anxiety, substance-related, and trauma-related disorders. Men in this region suffer silently, denying their mental health status and potentially causing preventable crises including outbursts of violence against self or others.

At the Aga Khan University Brain and Mind Institute, we recently held a panel discussion with fathers, their children, religious leaders and men with lived experiences to begin breaking the taboo on men’s and father’s mental health. From the panel discussion, here are some strategies men and fathers can use to attain and maintain good mental health.

Acknowledge difficulties. Men and fathers must start accepting their vulnerabilities and understand that knowing and acknowledging difficulties is an important step towards addressing them. We need to know when we are tired, hungry, overwhelmed, and getting sick. We need to agree that we are human and have frailties in certain areas of our lives where we need support from elsewhere.

While there is a general perception that acknowledging mental illness or psychological difficulties is a weakness, our panel agreed that it is a huge strength to acknowledge and speak out about the difficulties we are facing. It is only in doing this that the true burden of psychological distress among men can be known and measures taken to address this.

Seek support. Support is important in improving outcomes such as disability, substance abuse, suicide and homelessness. It can also help in creating support systems from peers, men’s groups, religion and safe spaces that provide practical and emotional support.

Relationships and family dynamics can also create an enabling environment for open mental health conversations. This will give fathers and men permission to seek help and accept vulnerabilities.

Religious institutions should also discuss more on the issues that men face, offer safe spaces and educate them about mental health. They can also encourage men to create fraternities where they can freely discuss mental health without fear of competitiveness, censure, or comparison.

Adopt healthy coping mechanisms. Healthy coping mechanisms are critical for maintaining and promoting good mental health. These include stress management techniques, professional help and self-care practices that can help manage stressful situations which trigger mental health symptoms. 

Professional help during mental health crisis provides tools and resources to manage symptoms and live a happy life. Professionals help make sense of the symptoms and bring control and understanding in the chaos surrounding mental health.

Fathers should take time off from regular parenting duties to reflect and declutter their minds. This will allow them to nurture their spirit and reconnect with their children with a clear mind.

Raise awareness and advocacy. Awareness and advocacy help in destigmatising issues around men’s mental health and facilitates the implementation of mental health policies like the Mental Health Act 2022 which promotes mental health and well-being of everyone, prevention and reduction of the impact of mental health disorders.

They also lead to the formation of advocacy groups that fight for improved mental health services, give voice to men suffering silently from poor mental health and help to push mental health literacy. This helps in developing interventions that are tailored towards tackling specific issues that affect men mentally.

Participate in research programmes. Recent research by the Brain and Mind Institute revealed that men are unwilling participants in mental health research even though it will help form the evidence base and inform targeted interventions to tackle men’s mental health. Studies show that the discrepancies in men’s mental health are due to many men being unwilling to open up about their mental struggles. Research will reveal the gaps and inform interventions, policies and knowledge on underlying factors.

Addressing men’s mental health requires a multi-faceted approach that considers breaking barriers, creating an enabling environment and good policies and creating awareness and advocacy. It also requires intensive research that will provide an accurate picture of the state of men’s mental health. Only then will the stigma around men’s mental health be broken.