For many students university is a time of joy, exploration, companionship and self-fulfillment. The cliché ‘best of years of your life’ gets tossed around quite frequently, and for many, this is true. However, there is a significant portion of students for whom university is not a time of joy but a time of despair; not exploration but entrapment; not companionship but isolation; and not self-fulfillment but self-repression. Sounds depressing, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, such problems often lead to exactly that – depression. The widely perceived solution, as seen in the highly visible UCD and national campaign ‘Please Talk’, is discussion. Certainly while talking may not solve a student’s underlying problems, it can often help the student turn themselves around and recognise that there are alternate solutions.
While all students can be afflicted by mental health problems, young men can be hit particularly hard and suicide is the leading cause of death among young men. Men are also the group that support networks find hardest to reach, according to Dr. Lorna Sweeney, whose recently published graduate thesis was entitled Young Irish Male Perspectives on Depression and Suicide. Sweeney believes “that men are typically reluctant to speak out about emotional along with physical problems” and also states in her thesis that suicide rates have increased substantially among young men over the previous fifty years.
When seeking to explain this phenomenon, she examined the contrasting ways in which men and women approached the subject. “Instead of showing any signs of weakness or showing anxiety or emotion when they are faced with a problem, [men] are expected to respond to any stresses with independence, assertiveness, self-control. Women are more likely to seek help for mental health problems [than men], but that doesn’t mean they’re more likely to experience them. It’s just that they’re more likely to recognise that it’s a mental health issue and to seek help for it, whereas men are less likely to identify it as a mental health problem”.
Mark Hyland from the UCD counseling service echoes these sentiments. “Often [young men] have a perspective that to be in distress is to be weak, and so the choice becomes a very black and white choice of either they are in distress and uncontained and that’s a weak position, and it’s almost a less preferable position to be in than the idea of being in distress but contained, by not talking about it. They almost retain a sense of masculinity by silently suffering.”
One area where this can be particularly evident is sexuality. “A lot of young males do tend to view their own sexuality as a kind of competitive thing, almost detached from feeling and emotion, and what it is to form committed bonds with people in relationships,” says Hyland. “That’s generally because at the heart you have this black and white piece where it’s a defense against their own insecurity… we mask our insecurity with an unfeeling exterior.”
As a culture we often have role models that reinforce an uncompromising position towards weakness. Hyland found the perception of sports figures, such as Roy Keane, particularly interesting in this regard. “Roy Keane doesn’t like weakness in males and he believes that you should just drive on through everything, he doesn’t allow for much vulnerability. I think what happens in a male like that is that it becomes a kind of catch-22.”
“You either survive based on those principles, and therefore you can dismiss weakness in anybody around you because you survived, because your rationale has worked for you. Or you become someone who has that way of being, but is broken because of it, and usually when people are broken because of it, that concept, they do a lot of harm to themselves, they take their own life, or they have a complete and utter breakdown and they’re shattered. And then they’re shattered by the relationship of that concept ‘I am not allowed to be weak’ and so the minute they are weak they have to destroy themselves further, they have to beat themselves up for being weak, because it’s not something that’s allowable for them.”
This dealing with weakness, this conflict between feelings of personal failures and a need to maintain a strong face, can exacerbate existing mental health difficulties. Hyland strongly feels that to acknowledge your insecurities and talk about them is a sign of strength rather than a sign of weakness and that “a healthy way of being is to be involved with other people.”
Sweeney’s research found that many of the young men in her focus groups revealed that most of their peer conversations were light-hearted and they did not usually discuss emotional or personal issues. She concluded that this “may not be the context where people feel comfortable in raising those [mental health] issues”. In contrast, many of the men were more comfortable talking about their problems individually. In her interviews with the friends of suicide victims, she discovered that “there was a difference between what he would have told them [individually], and what he would have told the group.”
Of course this tendency to open up on a more individual basis is not gender-specific, with Sweeney stating, “It’s human nature that people would tend to open up more to one person rather than to declare emotions to a whole group of people.” The discrepancy occurs rather because women were more likely, on balance, to have a larger number of close relationships with people they could feel comfortable confiding in.
Men, on the other hand, had fewer of these types of relationships and were often only comfortable talking to their girlfriends rather than any of their friends. “When a man is talking to his girlfriend he can reveal weaknesses, whereas when he’s talking to his friends, maybe he can’t, it’s very fluid,” she explains before warning that “for young men who don’t have a significant other maybe it’s more challenging, because they don’t have that close intimacy where they can share emotions or concerns.”
Many strides have been made in terms of support available to young men. Sandra Hagan, spokesperson for the Mental Health Charity Aware, has been working since 1985 to provide support for people who are experiencing depression. Depression is an increasingly visible problem in Ireland and Hagan suggests, “that more than ten per cent of the population (450,000) experience depression at any one time.” Though there was no clear imbalance between the proportion of males and females seeking Aware’s help, she does believe young males are a high-risk group. “It is possible that depression in men is under-reported. It can be very difficult for someone to come forward with depression, and this can be especially true for men. Social expectations can mean that men feel unable to share private concerns that are bothering them. This is unfortunate as it can mean that they are prevented from accessing important forms of support for themselves.”
Hagan explains that much progress has been made since the organisation’s inception, including their service Beat the Blues and their newest addition of online support groups. These online support groups had “received a fantastic response from people wanting to sign up for the service. The online service was launched in order to make Aware support groups more accessible for people and to help overcome some of the barriers to seeking help”.
Sweeney agreed that much progress had been made in helping to combat male mental health issues but did point out that more could be done. “We also need to have campaigns so that the people around the young man might be able to support him better and might be able to know how to intervene when they know there’s something going on and know how to respond effectively to what he tells them.”
“In all my research, [with] all the young men I talked to it really came across that they really value their friendships, that a lot of their friends they knew their whole lives,” Sweeney says. “I don’t think it’s a matter of not wanting to support friends, I think it’s just … not knowing what to do. Also youth mental health policy in Ireland doesn’t recognise friendships, it always talks about services and we need to improve these services, and that’s good because we do, but at the same time we need to improve the lay support system around young people.”
Young people, including students, remain particularly vulnerable to mental health problems as youth is often a time of great upheaval and it is often only later on in life that people become more relaxed with themselves. Consequently, a huge amount of effort is invested in encouraging young people to confront any anxieties or issues they might hold through dialogue. Campaigns such as ‘Please Talk’, play an essential role in helping individuals recognise that having difficulties is human rather than a weakness.
Despite these efforts, confronting mental health problems remains problematic and this is particularly true for young males. It is a tragic reflection of this group’s vulnerability that the ratio of young men committing suicide, compared with their female counterparts, today stands at seven to one. Young males have a tendency to normalise and ignore genuine symptoms of depression for fear of looking weak. In reality, the more crippling weakness is often giving in to this fear and failing to seek help in tackling problems head on. Of course, there is no guarantee that discussing the issue will solve everything, but that does not mean men should continue to go it alone. In the words of a wise man, a problem shared is a problem halved.