When I think about men’s mental health, I reflect on all the important men in my life—one being my brother. At the age of 36, he’s not only my brother, but he’s also a son, a husband, and a dad. He’s a fisherman, a hunter, a builder by trade, a team leader and occasional family comedian – mostly entertaining us with dad-jokes these days! In some ways, he may fit the stereotype of what it means to be a “Kiwi bloke” so, with my psychologist hat on, I was keen to put some questions to him as we approach Movember and raise awareness of men’s mental health.
1. Why do you think men typically report less psychological distress and mental illness than do women, yet have statistically higher rates of suicide in New Zealand?
In my experience there has been a long-standing kiwiana stigma of men that have grown up with the “She’ll be right”, just walk it off or “just toughen up” attitude. As a boy it felt natural to look up to the man of the house for unspoken advice on how to be and act. While I believe this is becoming less of our culture in NZ, it was very much a thing going through my teenage years and especially at an all-boys college.
I believe boys and men report less distress due to it being seen or perceived internally as a weakness. I must admit there is a primitive part of my brain that is hard-wired with the mindset that I need to be tough and never to show weakness. I believe the idea of being tough needs to shift from a primitive physical reaction in men to understanding it’s actually a true strength to be open and honest with your feelings. In conclusion, it’s not easy to say but it’s the “toughness” in us that is preventing us from talking—and ultimately killing us.
2. Do you think the stereotype of a “Kiwi bloke” has changed in the past 10 years? And if so, how?
In my experience there has been a slow shift in the Kiwi bloke culture and thankfully it’s for the better. It’s a hard cycle to break if the men you look up to as a boy still fit the old mould of a man. I personally feel a sense of moral obligation as a tradesman, team leader and dad to enable anyone around me to feel safe to discuss anything. From my experience onsite as a tradesman, the younger apprentices around me talked and were more open than I was at their stage of life. I do feel it’s heading in the right direction.
3. With the many hats you wear – husband, dad, team leader – what do you do to look after your mental health?
I think the most important thing is to be honest with yourself and accept you will have good days and bad. I believe everyone has a level of resilience within them that can be increased if they choose to. For me, I choose to think of mine as a muscle and, if I work on it every day, it will get stronger and stronger. I remind myself daily, “Making mistakes is human, it’s what we do after making a mistake that defines us as a human”. It reminds me that I’m not perfect but if learn from my mistakes I can be better than I was the day before.
4. Has your awareness of mental health shifted since becoming a team leader? If so, how?
I believe my awareness of mental health has changed and the role I can play in providing support to my team has become more important. Before I became a team leader, I really looked up to the other leaders around me. Now that I’m in their position I’m very aware my staff may look at me in the same way. If I can be an example to my team of an open and honest individual, who doesn’t shy away from difficult conversations and operates with an open-door policy, I hope they can feel safe to chat about anything.
5. As a dad to a three-year-old boy, what do you hope for his future in terms of men’s mental health?
I hope he grows up in a home and country where he feels he can be himself and know it’s OK to talk about how you’re feeling. I definitely feel a sense of responsibility to provide a safe environment for him to grow up in and would encourage him to provide the same environment for his peers. It would be great to see a shift in how boys can interpret their understanding of what toughness is and realise it’s not a weakness to talk or show compassion around others who are struggling, in fact it shows strength.
A noticeable theme through my brother’s responses was this pressure for men to show to themselves and others this sense of “toughness”. As we shift from the outdated perception of what it means to be “tough” to show real “strength”, my hope is that we can equip men with the support, confidence and skills to reach out when most needed.