Are we tuned in? Dr Miriam Kennedy reflects on Men’s Health Week 2018
Are we tuned in?…to Men’s mental Distress? We asked Dr Miriam Kennedy Consultant Psychiatrist and Director of Communication and Public Education to reflect on how society could take that ‘one small step’ and encourage men to talk openly and honestly about their mental health, following International Men’s Health Week 2018.
One of my earliest memories as an intern was looking after a young gentleman, just 21, a student who had taken a very severe overdose. He was with me as I was working in a medical ward and I remember the sight of his pals coming in and the joking and the ‘hey fella’ well met, and the banter. And I guess what really struck me is that this was such a contrast to what was really going on with this young man in his life at that time. But he couldn’t let down the side, he couldn’t let down the jokes, he couldn’t let down the guy who was always on for the ‘craic’, and it was hiding much deeper, was a very difficult episode where he was experiencing severe low mood and hopelessness. Some months later he took another serious self-poisoning episode and sadly he died.
I wasn’t in psychiatry at the time but what actually struck me were our attempts to try and help him and [his] friends to acknowledge that there was a deep being within him, mentally unwell with a deep emotional pain. That did not mean that their friend couldn’t or wouldn’t get treatment or couldn’t come back again to him but it did mean that then any of their the jokes and laughter only compounded the actual distance there was between where he saw himself and felt himself to be, and where the others were.
And I thought about men (of all ages) in our society – is there a space? Is there a space for when somebody is feeling down and needs that to be acknowledged? For somebody who perhaps needs someone to not ‘jolly them along’ but to hear them.
In our friendships, in our families, in our workplace are we tuned in to mental health? Are we tuned in to how people are (feeling)? Sure we can have a bad day but if that has gone on for a few weeks, affecting concentration, our attention or dress or being able to function or interact.., or something just isn’t right, can we encourage honesty? Can we encourage honesty by that friendly word, by going for coffee, by being open about a period that we may have had; a depressive illness, anxiety, a bad time ourselves if there is something very difficult going on for somebody Can we share with them that it’s a good idea going to a GP, that our physical health and our mental health is very correlated. We don’t rush people to ‘get over it’, because what people sometimes need is professional help, they may need psychological help, they may need medical help, or they may need that combination with a team to look after them with a mental illness or they may just need to get through a period of low time without making it worse by a sense of failure and distance and isolation.
If I was to say one thing from my own experience is that with men’s mental health is to encourage honesty – to encourage a manager if someone comes to you and they need their two hours a week to attend something that helps their mental health (addiction, therapy) that we acknowledge that that is taking responsibility and care of their mental health and we keep that confidentiality but we also support it – and that normalises things. Can we notice somebody and bring them for a quiet word and come back a week later and just say I’m here for you if you need me, let me know.
Another person who I looked after during the year had never told anybody about their recurrent depressive episodes and their suicidal tendencies and when he did open up, because we had this group work around stigma and overcoming it, his neighbour disclosed that his own brother had had very severe mental health difficulties and he really understood it. And the stress lifted from the shoulders of this gentleman and somehow there was a lot more hope and a lot less isolation. He still needed treatment but he had a connection and a support which meant getting through and out the other side was much more doable. We all have stories, husband, brother, fathers, uncles, and I think it’s important for us to allow that space for them to be honest and to normalise the emotions and the distress that comes with mental illness, and in fact look after our mental health.