Men's Health Week 2021 (Chris's personal blog)
This week is Men’s Health Week – a week dedicated to raising awareness surrounding the health issues which affect men disproportionately and also to remind men of the importance of maintaining a healthy body and mind.
Mental and physical health are equally important. But for men, there are social expectations and gender stereotypes that often prevent them from opening up and discussing their health. With suicide being the leading cause of death for men in the UK under the age of 50 (with Northern Ireland having the highest rate overall), the conversation surrounding mental health is considered to be particularly neglected (Mental Health Foundation, 2019).
To encourage men to start talking, AWARE's Chris Love has kindly shared his story.
One quarter of deaths by suicide in the UK are middle aged men. That’s men who are aged between 40 and 54. That’s me.
Northern Ireland is estimated to experience 20-25% higher levels of mental health illness compared to the rest of the UK but has the lowest levels of mental health spend in the UK and Ireland.
In recent years, we’ve witnessed campaigns such as Movember roll out where your mates grew a moustache for the month of November. The campaign raised money for men’s health issues but, over 20 years on from the campaign first started, we’re still tackling the taboo of men’s mental health.
Having turned 40 last year, during the pandemic, I looked around at my friend group who were leading successful and happy lives and wondered if their happiness was genuine or were they like me - struggling with meeting stereotypical images of powerful, wealthy, chiselled-jawed men. As it turns out, my friends were tackling their own hidden issues too. Just because someone looks like they have it together doesn’t necessarily mean they do.
I’ve struggled with how I looked for almost as long as I can remember. Societal pressures tells us that we must look, dress and act a certain way. I’ve never had a six pack. I feel incredibly uncomfortable at the thought of wearing nothing but shorts on a beach holiday. I always ask myself why I don’t look younger and fitter like the influencer images that pop up on my Instagram feed. Women have set about changing their predefined body images and as men, we must do the same.
A study by the charity CALM reveals almost half of UK men say poor body image has affected their mental health. 48% of men aged 16-40 struggle because of how they feel about their body. 58% said the pandemic had affected how they feel about their body in a negative way. Only 26% said they were happy with how they look and 21% said they don't feel comfortable talking to anyone about it. It seems I’m not the only one.
Sleep is incredibly important. Poor sleep can affect how well you think, react, work, learn, and get along with others. Something happened to me in 2016. I lost the ability to sleep. It was like an on-off switch in my body that was now permanently on. I was a walking zombie and some days I didn’t even have the energy to walk. My mental health was at an all-time low.
For me, I’ve found my happiness in a couple of places. I tackled my sleep cycle by talking to people. I was amazed that so many people were in the same position or had previously suffered from insomnia. It felt really good to know that I wasn’t alone. Recently, the 'coronasomnia' phenomenon is disrupting routines and ongoing uncertainty is contributing to a surge in insomnia across the UK. I discovered sleep hygiene which promotes habits to achieve a good sleep. Simple changes have helped me rebalance and tell my body that it’s time to rest and switch off.
I was never an exercise fanatic. After many attempts at trying out a myriad of sports I found two things that I love: CrossFit and hot yoga. Studies show people who exercise regularly have improved mood and lower rates of depression. Improved self-esteem is a key psychological benefit to regular exercise. The experts at my gym and yoga studio have helped me to understand my body. Those endorphins, a word that is bandied about all too often, were realised. I’m not sure I’ll ever feel excited about exercising but the feeling of accomplishment after a gruelling workout is something to behold.
And finally, the two most important factors that have helped me during the past year is knowing my friends are there for me and eating healthily. Loneliness, especially during the past year, could have easily consumed me but picking up the phone, meeting friends for a walk and a coffee helped me stay connected to the people I love the most. I’ve almost ditched alcohol, not because I don’t like it but because of the way that it made me feel after a binging session of late nights, long hangover days and eating poorly. Our body reacts well when it’s fed with nutrition. It’s rather a simple piece of science. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a complete struggle to eat five pieces of fruit and veg and drink two litres of water every day but learning to eat more greens and less chocolate and fatty foods really does help me feel better about myself.
I’ve made small simple changes to my lifestyle that have had a huge impact in boosting my mental health. I’m sharing this with you as it’s men’s mental health week and there is no better time to start opening up and having conversations about our mental health than now. We all know that it’s OK not to be OK, but let’s not stop having conversations about our mental health at the end of this week. Just like you smash your sales target at work or your personal best at the gym, we need to smash the male mental health taboo too.
If you are on a similar journey as to what Chris has described and would like to attend one of our peer-led support groups to talk to people in the same place as yourself and to discuss ways forward, then please click here: www.aware-ni.org/lets-talk