Improving men’s mental health, one activity at a time

Anastasia Tsirtsakis

17/06/2020 12:46:59 PM

As social-distancing restrictions start to ease, Dr James Antoniadis discusses the importance of shared activities for men.

Older men talking
Men’s Sheds have become a way for thousands of men to come together in their local communities and connect over woodwork and other manual crafts.

Research shows one in eight men will experience depression and one in five anxiety at some stage of their lives.
Yet they are less likely to pick up the phone to call a friend, or make an appointment with their GP.
This week marks Men’s Health Week (15–21 June) and with the community’s focus firmly planted on coronavirus, Dr James Antoniadis, Chair of RACGP Victoria’s GP and Psychiatry Liaison Committee, says it is an important chance to raise awareness.
‘Given the current situation with COVID-19, I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of men … aren’t coming forward for fear of being seen as sort of complaining,’ the psychodynamic psychotherapist told newsGP.
‘It is a long-standing problem for men, the cultural taboos around being unwell, about not being at your peak, about being sick. So it doesn’t take much for a man to feel that his problems would be seen as complaining.
‘Unless there’s a good reason to bring this subject up, men tend not to talk about it.’
The effects of the pandemic have been numerous, with unemployment, financial instability and feelings of isolation among the most significant issues.
But with men typically more comfortable connecting with others through activities, Dr Antoniadis believes they have been hard hit over the past few months. 
‘Men tend not to get together just to talk about the small things. They tend to get together for activities and the communication sort of happens in the margins,’ he said.
‘Whether it’s a Men’s Shed, a fishing expedition, golf or any other sort of activity where men are brought together, it’s an opportunity for men to be together without feeling the pressure of having to talk or reveal.
‘It also takes away some of the pressures around time because sitting in a shed or in a golf course for probably hours allows people to find the time or the situation in which they can express themselves.
‘It gives them an opportunity to explore each other’s social lives or other issues without feeling that they have to delve in deeply. If it does get too much for them, they can then quickly just revert to whatever they’re doing and concentrate on the game or the activity.’

Dr James Antoniadis says activities, such as those offered by Men’s Sheds, give men the opportunity to connect without pressure.

Until recently, social-distancing restrictions have meant all recreational sporting activities across Australia have been banned.
Almost 1200 Men’s Sheds across the country also had to close their doors.
Since their inception, Men’s Sheds have become a way for thousands of men to come together in their local communities and connect over woodwork and other manual crafts.
‘The success is in the model,’ David Helmers, Australian Men’s Shed Association (AMSA) Executive Officer, said.
‘Men don’t visit the shed to improve their health; it’s somewhere to go and something to do. Positive health outcomes and community-building are a great by-product.’
Recognised as part of the Federal Government’s National Men’s Health Strategy 2020–2030, to keep men connected during the closure, AMSA launched AMSA Shed Online and The Shed Wireless podcast. While helpful, it couldn’t replace the face-to-face interaction.
‘I think that type of togetherness isn’t really amenable to things like Zoom and telephone calls, and other types of social get-togethers where people sit around talking,’ Dr Antoniadis said.  
‘And so for that reason, I think men particularly have been more disadvantaged by the coronavirus restrictions because those incidental contacts are the ones that were mainly outlawed.
‘It is obviously a relief for many people that men are able to go back out and go fishing, go to the Men’s Sheds, go to play golf or sport in general. That side of things we need to protect, because if we don’t understand the value of those activities beyond entertainment, then we will tend to undervalue them and shut them down – unnecessarily sometimes.’

Yet, despite coronavirus infections remaining low and restrictions starting to ease, two recent studies suggest a dramatic decrease in mental wellbeing in Australia – what has been referred to by some experts as a second wave of the pandemic.
With men already making up six out of every eight daily suicides in Australia, the research is cause for concern.
‘I think that this period of time is going to see a lot of people putting their mental health a little bit on the back burner,’ Dr Antoniadis said.
‘It’s probably going to be harder for people to talk to their GPs about interpersonal problems because of their feelings that they might be burdening the GP, who’s got “bigger things” to talk about or worry about, like people dying of coronavirus infection.’

In the instance that male patients do reach out to their GP, Dr Antoniadis says it is an opportunity for GPs to detect and discuss any concerns around mental health.
‘We need to be sensitive in the current environment that anybody who reaches out may even be potentially suicidal, and so to not fall into the trap of seeing the stoicism as a marker of coping, but rather perhaps as a cover for fragility,’ he said.
‘It’s important that GPs don’t collude with the patient in denying the fragility that they might be experiencing.’
And with the medical profession having faced significant pressure as the first line response to the pandemic, Dr Antoniadis highlights that GPs themselves are no exception.
‘I think that GPs are probably also struggling with feelings, perhaps anxieties around the meaning of this to their health, that they might pass it on to their families and their parents and so on,’ he said.
‘So I think this is an important opportunity for us to also say that doctors can also be men, and it might be worth thinking about the unconscious effects of fear.’  
By raising greater community awareness, through national health campaigns and education, Dr Antoniadis says he is seeing a positive shift – but there is a way to go.
‘My experience is men are a lot more comfortable coming forward and mentioning the words depression and anxiety,’ he said. ‘So I think that we are chipping away at that cultural stoicism, and who knows where we’ll be in 50 years’ time.’

Listen to Dr James Antoniadis speak about mental health presentations on the latest episode of the RACGP’s podcast Generally Speaking.

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