Men, mental health and grief – a conversation
Three Cruse volunteers look at how grief affects men's mental health, and what can help.
This week is Men’s Health Week. There is increasing evidence that grief can have a serious effect on men’s health, and to mark the week we asked three of our volunteers – Paul, Fraser and Dom – if they would share their thoughts on men, grief and mental health.
Why is it important for men to talk about grief?
Paul: Many, though not all, men feel it is their role to support others grief and be the protector. If they don’t acknowledge it and try talking about it, they may carry it for years and it can manifest itself in many ways – rage, depression, disconnect, resentment.
Fraser: Women talk to other women – men do talk to other men but they don’t talk about what is important when they are experiencing traumatic times in their life and as a result either attempt to put a gloss on their situation and prevent everything is OK, or leave it too late and then need to seek urgent help.
Dom: It is vital for men to talk about grief because grief doesn’t know gender. It doesn’t develop an understanding of what it is to be male, female, non-binary, and then decide how to affect you. It’s up to us to understand grief. By talking about it we allow ourselves to work out how that grief is manifesting. We learn that the thing that we thought was causing us anger, aggression, hurt, pain, sadness is just a mask and, in fact, is actually linked deeper to our grief.
If we don’t talk about it, we are building on that pain, sadness, aggression. We’re allowing it to grow in an unhealthy way. By talking about it, you break it down. You give it less power, less strength, less control.
Men are not talkative individuals in times of difficulty. They can be 'embarrassed' to admit they are grieving and it does take some effort with some clients to get them to talk and express how they are feeling.
Why do you think men typically find it harder to talk about grief and their emotions?
Fraser: Men are not good at communicating grief or other traumatic events in their life. They are conditioned from an early age to man up and are afraid in many cases to show emotions.
Dom: Men are taught to be the head of the family, to be seen as a pillar of strength and power. I think traditionally men have been taught not to talk, and that it’s a sign of weakness or inferiority. I would challenge that and actually say it’s a weakness to not be able to talk about these things.
Paul: Socialisation. British “stiff upper lip”. Outdated traditions that men should be the stronger and manage their emotions. There is often also peer shaming about men showing emotions. This is becoming less so thanks to a younger generation of men speaking more openly about grief and mental health. But we have a long way to go.
Grief will never leave you, and some days it will feel bigger and more consuming than others, which is why it’s so important to talk about it. By acknowledging and expressing the thought, you diminish the impact it has on your overall mental wellbeing.
How can grief affect mental health?
Paul: Grief is an incredibly powerful emotion and only strengthens if ignored. If unaddressed, it can lead to stress, anxiety, resentment and anger. For many this can lead to burnout and, potentially, breakdowns.
Fraser: Grief can have a significant effect on mental health and be detrimental not only in the short term but also over a longer period of time as their mental health deteriorates if help is not sought. I have no doubt that men experiencing grief also in many cases have an underlying mental health condition which creates a ‘double whammy’ in terms of grief, loneliness and their ability to get through each day with little or no help with their psychological pain and distress. Men are taught to be strong and this is imprinted into them – sometimes they need to stop being strong, accept help and emerge better for support to enable them to continue their lives without their lost ones, as best they can.
Dom: When left too long, grief filters into other parts of your life. When you start to numb those feelings of grief, you slowly begin to start numbing all other feelings. You dampen everything, anger, joy, happiness, sadness. Grief begins to consume you. Consume your thoughts, turn them negative, it plays tricks on you. It allows your hypothetical to go into overdrive, “the unthinkable happened so why wouldn’t all the other bad stuff happen, right?” Wrong – that’s the grief talking. And by leaving it unchallenged, you’re not giving it a counter-argument. You’re letting it win, champion your thoughts, dictate how you think, react, feel.
What would your advice be to a man struggling with grief?
Paul: Talk. Talk to anyone – a friend, a stranger, a counsellor. Grief is a natural emotion and something we will all experience in life. Your grief is as real as anyone else. There is a tremendous amount of strength in reaching out. Find time for yourself to shout, cry with someone or on your own.
Fraser: My approach with male clients has been to be compassionate to their situation, and show empathy in what they are experiencing and going through. I also reassure them that their symptoms are as a result of grief and they will gradually start to feel better over a period of time and with professional support. In all cases, men need to be listened to, to share their grief, to cry if they wish to, but above all have trust in the volunteer supporting them. I have had male clients who have said only a few words during the initial contact with them but gradually when trust is established they begin to share their experience.
Dom: If talking about your emotions, and grief especially, doesn’t sit comfortably with you, start small. Test the waters, find out who will listen, find out who will support, allow yourself to tap into it, gently. Your grief is yours; you own it, not the other way around. You don’t have to go into these conversations with everything laid bare and on the table. Make yourself comfortable, trust that people can handle what you have to share – you’ll positively surprise yourself. And remember, by you being that person who opens up first, you pave the way for others to share, and slowly we form a safe, non-judgemental place where you can talk about the grief, the pain, the sadness. And you can just be you.
Exercise, like running, swimming or working out, may help manage stress. But talking will help you acknowledge that your grief is valid and start to understand what is going on for you.