In the UK, apart from front line workers, the two distinct groups of society that have been impacted most developmentally and psychologically from the pandemic are children and men. Men have been hugely affected by the removal of an absolutely developmental and psychological need for complex social contact and the pressures of upcoming economic challenges around the loss of jobs. It’s a tough time to be a human at the moment and it’s a very tough time to be a human male.
Some men have really rallied during this time and have taken hold of the opportunities of home working and being with their families more, although others have not. Men have the tendency to retrench and retreat in the face of this, to regress into versions of manhood that are more toxic and psychologically fragile.
Men’s mental health problems still rising
We know when men are struggling through some very simple metrics: a rise in alcohol consumption and alcohol-related deaths, rise in suicide rates, rise in domestic violence, rise in violence in general, rise in admission to psychiatric hospitals for severe and enduring mental health conditions. All are on the rise at the moment.
Psychotherapist Noel McDermott comments: ‘The essential lesson all guys need to learn right now is that there is strength in vulnerability and loving connection to others, a simple truth that needs to be driven home hard right now. Research shows that for every 1% increase in unemployment in Europe there is a 0.8% increase in suicides and 75% of those suicides will be men.’
Suggestions for men on navigating in the short term
- Stop drinking or reduce it to infrequent use in small amounts.
- Make at least one phone call every single day that is about catching up with a male friend.
- Identify those of your mates (male) who live alone and are possibly struggling at the moment and contact them at least once a week to chew the fat.
- If you have kids, then role model talking about feelings with them (if you’ve got boys you might just be saving their lives).
- Sleep properly, exercise regularly, and eat a balanced diet.
- Broaden your support network – keep new people coming into it.
- Challenge yourself to develop new interests and hobbies.
Men and psychological support
Men have traditionally taken an ‘all your eggs in one basket’ approach to psychological support, in fact, men have shied away from any hint or suggestion that the activities that provide support (spending time with your mates at work or play) are, in fact, psychological or supportive. They are things and activities which have been largely removed because of the pandemic. For some men, anecdotally, this has led to helpful breakdowns and an opening up of vulnerability and need, for other guys, this has led to a retrenchment into unhelpful coping mechanisms such as denial (and therefore increased suicidality), drinking, and indeed violence.
Men need to move on from being defined because of what we provide through work, achievement, etc., to being defined by what we are as people, by our values and connections with others. That internal capacity is the real work of life, everything flows from that capacity. Love, relationships, attachment have profound impacts on our neurological growth and in particular on the development of our frontal lobes. Our frontal lobes give us huge capacity to be successful through improved cognition, executive functioning, impulse control, rational thought, more effective memory, better regulation of strong emotion, acquisition of new skills, capacity to adapt to new life circumstances… the list goes on. All of this is available to us because, as social animals, we relate in loving ways and the hormones produced by that facilitate frontal lobe development.
Noel comments: ‘The answer is to embrace this moment of crisis as an opportunity to change. The key idea is spreading your bets – ask yourself who you have regular contact with, who you would talk to about anxieties, who would you arrange to go out for fun with, etc? If your answers indicate that it’s a small number of people who are all pretty similar you are setting yourself up for a fall. Diversity is the keyword here – fill your life with a diverse range of opportunities to do all of the above things and you will have spread your bets in the “getting through life” stakes successfully.’
Noel McDermott is a psychotherapist with over 25 years’ experience in health, social care, and education, with a range of online therapy resources to help clients.