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Each year, Men's Health Week draws attention and awareness to issues effecting the wellbeing of men across the world.

This year's theme, “Building Healthy Environments for Men and Boys,” focuses on the importance of creating physically, mentally, and emotionally healthy environments for men to seek and receive health care.

In Australia, men are more likely to suffer from serious health problems than women. Their mortality rate is higher, life expectancy shorter, and they are four times more likely to take their own lives compared to women.

Sadly suicide remains the leading cause of death in males under the age of 55, which is why it’s important to understand how we can foster safe and healthy environments for men to seek the help they need.

Robert Karoly is an Albury Wodonga Health (AWH) psychiatrist who has witnessed the effects of poor mental health in men first-hand. With over 35 years of mental health experience, Robert currently works with AWH’s Early Intervention and Capacity Building (EICB) Rural Outreach team in small farming communities like Corryong.

“We work with a lot of bush fire affected areas, helping to identify and treat emerging mental health problems at an early stage. We work with the community to help build resilience through skill-building and education.”

Because low-prevalence, high-acuity cases like schizophrenia are often easy to identify, the EICB team focus on high-prevalence, low-acuity cases like anxiety and distress.

“We find that a lot of distress in rural and remote communities stems from lack of communication.”

“Unfortunately the stereotype of men needing to be the ‘strong and silent type’ is alive and well. However, this silence does not always equal strength and resilience. In fact, a lot of strength can be displayed by reaching out to someone, communicating, and expressing vulnerability.”

“What we’re talking about is not only how men manage their own distress, but how men notice distress in others and feel comfortable enough to take steps to enquire.”

Robert explains that starting these conversations in a local environment, like your home, is one of the best first steps.

Particularly in small communities, where a lot of distress is tied up with poor succession planning of family properties, having dinner table conversations early can help reduce future stresses which may amount to poor mental health.

But how do you reach out and have these open and honest conversations? And how do you speak your mind when it’s not an easy conversation to have?”

If you don’t feel comfortable speaking to your family, Robert suggests seeking professional support in the form of a GP. As daunting as it may be, most people find that speaking to their GP makes a big difference.

“Often seeing a GP is the best place to start, especially with mental health where there may be other health factors at play”

However, studies have shown that men visit the doctor less than women, have shorter visits, and often only attend when their illness is in its later stages.

This avoidance of medical assistance can be linked to the social construct of masculinity, where boys and men have been taught to embody traits associated with the ‘strong and silent type,’ where seeking help and being vulnerable is considered a weakness.

“For this reason it’s important for us to build communities and healthy environments that support these conversations. Even at a very basic level, we need to teach men about vulnerability and encourage them to start conversations about themselves and others.”

While these talks can be hard, Robert stresses that you should always say something if you’re concerned.

“People like certainty, so often struggle when you don’t know what someone’s going to say. But, this is where the real strength lies - you’ve got to be vulnerable, enter into uncertainty, and know that it doesn’t make you any less of a person to ask.”

When having these conversations, Robert says to never offer blind reassurance like ‘you’ll be fine.’ From his experience, this can often be interpreted as rejection and a personal distancing from the other person’s pain and distress.

Instead, the key is to listen and express empathy not sympathy.

The other piece of guidance Robert offers is that asking about suicide doesn’t make it more likely.

“That’s bread and butter for us – we know that if you ask someone about suicide it doesn’t make suicide more likely. In fact, quite the opposite. It often makes the person feel relieved and unburdened, as it opens the door for conversation and them being able to speak their mind.”

While there are multiple different approaches to these conversations, one thing remains the same – it is important for men to have support networks that help develop healthy masculine ideals and positive, supportive male peer relationships.

Whether it be a partner, friend, or health professional, it can be tough to speak up about health concerns but it's important to take the first step to get the help you need.

There's nothing weak about seeking health information and support, in fact - speaking up is the strongest thing you can do.

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