7 April 2020

Men, don’t go it alone: pick up the phone

Movember's very own Dr Zac Seidler, a clinical psychologist gives his thoughts on maintaining friendships.
Mental Health
Three weeks into lockdown our daily lives have changed in ways that until recently would have been unimaginable. Unsurprisingly, the pandemic already appears to be having an impact on the nation’s mental health and wellbeing.

A new study by researchers from the University of Sheffield and Ulster University published on March 31st, found that the number of people reporting significant levels of depression and anxiety has risen after the government ordered us to stay home due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Past research tells us that men rely heavily on their work to give them a sense of achievement and self-worth. Regardless of whether or not the image of men being ‘providers’ is an outdated one, this expectation still rings true for many. And if they feel they aren’t living up to that standard, they (wrongly) class themselves as failures.

Now huge numbers are facing unemployment and financial hardship on an unprecedented scale.

Our own research has also shown that men tend to have fewer close friends than women. The close friendships they do have tend to fall away following life’s big transition points, such as leaving home, becoming a father for the first time or heading into retirement.

For the next few months at least, dads are now faced with the prospect of working from home, with the added responsibility of looking after their children, while older men can’t go out to for a much-needed catch-up and some banter with their mates.

We also know that men typically need a reason to check in on each other and spend time with their mates. Whether we’re meeting in the pub for a swift half, watching or playing sport at the weekend or fixing the car, men tend to be more comfortable when taking part in an activity together, rather than talking about their worries on the phone.

A crucial part of Movember’s role is to raise awareness of the crisis in men’s mental health. Three out of four people who die by suicide each year are male. And it remains the biggest killer of men under the age of 44.

Male suicide is strongly predicted by risk factors such as unemployment, social isolation, financial distress and relationship breakdown.

At the moment a number of these factors are either already present or are on the horizon for a huge number of men, while at the same time their usual avenues of contact and connection are slipping away. If we are to proactively intervene in reducing an already unacceptably high male suicide rate, we need to find new ways of communicating with each other. Talking ‘shoulder to shoulder’ and skirting around issues over a beer are just not tenable in the near future so we need to adapt. And fast.

We want men to look after themselves and those around them. That means using technology to check in with your mates regularly to see where you can lend a hand. There are plenty of guys out there already setting up virtual happy hours with their mates, challenging each other to online workouts or playing Call of Duty together into the small hours.

We also need to accept that while there might not be any easy solutions, there’s still a way to utilise your strengths to build up those around you. If we work together, we can make the best of this shit situation.
There is no excuse for not calling a friend who’s just lost his job. While you probably can’t get it back for him or give him a loan that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t check how he’s feeling.

You don’t need to know what to say; as uncomfortable as it might feel for you, it’s fine not to have all the answers. Just let him know you hear him, you’re with him and you’ll get through this together.

You may find this will go a long way. Don’t expect he doesn’t want to be bothered, or that he’s probably better off not talking about it. Assume the opposite.

Don’t let stubbornness, fear or discomfort hold you back. This isn’t the time for a stiff upper lip. It’s a time to rally together – the best antidote for fear and uncertainty.

So just make the call.
If you’re concerned about a mate and don’t know where to start, use the ALEC conversation model: Ask, Listen, Encourage Action, Check-in.

(A)sk: Start by mentioning anything different you’ve noticed. Maybe he’s dropped out of the group chat or isn’t so active on social media anymore. “You’ve not quite seemed yourself recently. Are you okay?” Trust your instinct. Remember, we often say “I’m fine” when we’re not. So if you think something’s wrong, don’t be afraid to ask twice.

(L)isten: Try to give him your full attention, without interruptions. Don’t feel you have to diagnose problems, offer solutions or give advice. Just let him know you’re all ears, judgement-free. Follow-up questions are good too. They’ll help let him know you’re listening. “That can’t be easy. How long have you felt that way?”

(E)ncourage Action: Help him to focus on simple things that might improve his wellbeing: Is he getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, and eating properly? Maybe there’s something that’s helped before? Suggest he tells other people he trusts how he’s feeling. This will make things easier – for both of you. And if he’s felt low for more than two weeks, suggest he calls his doctor.

(C)heck-in: Suggest you catch up soon – over the phone, on FaceTime or even just a WhatsApp message. This will show you care. Plus, you’ll get a feel for whether he’s feeling any better.  To speak with someone immediately, contact Lifeline on 0800 543 354 or Suicide Crisis Helpline on 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO).