You know how important mental health is, but according to a recent survey, you may not be willing to take steps to improve it. Hearst Media, the parent company of men’s health, surveyed 1,517 men aged 18 to 80 living in the United States about their health problems. Four out of five guys said their mental and emotional health deserved the same attention they give to their physical health.
Awesome, right? Well, only two-thirds of men surveyed said they would actually seek therapy if the situation was dire. During periods of, say, anxiety, depression or sadness, one in three men not consult a professional for help. In other words, men still stigmatize mental health care.
“There is a stigma associated with men showing signs of vulnerability,” says Jake Goodman, MD, resident physician in psychiatry and mental health advocate. “We grew up in a society where people are expected to be strong. To admit feelings of anxiety or depression would be to suggest that we are not tough enough. So we tend to hide these feelings. We were taught to “man up”.
This personal concept may partly explain why one in three respondents said that only men with serious problems, i.e. anything that keeps you from functioning, should see a therapist. It’s a belief that can harm men’s health in countless ways.
“There is a stigma associated with men showing signs of vulnerability.”
“You don’t need a diagnosable disorder to benefit from therapy,” says Ken Nash, MD, chief of clinical services at UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital and professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh. “You don’t have to have a disease to decide to have a more nutritious diet or hire a personal trainer. you just realize you’re not at your peak and want to improve your health. Mental health is the same.
In fact, there aren’t many people who couldn’t benefit from therapy these days. Given the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the many uncertainties of everyday life, the question is not who is anxious/stressed/depressed/all of the above right now, but who is not?
How do you know if therapy is right for you?
“In general, anyone could benefit from some sort of mental health treatment, but it doesn’t have to be with a therapist,” says Dr. Nash. “It could be a mindfulness app, a support group, or many other variations of mental health interventions. Specifically, if you find that your mental health is impacting your relationships or your ability to enjoy activities, working with a therapist can help build your resilience and give you tools to help you succeed.
Here are some signs that you might benefit from seeing a therapist:
- You can’t sleep. Or maybe you’re sleeping more than usual. Either can be a sign of depression. What’s tricky, though, is that sleep and depression have a two-way relationship: chronic sleep deprivation can contribute to the development of depression, and depression can lead to sleep problems. Either way, a therapist can help.
- You drink/eat/fill in the holes to excess. Engaging in destructive habits — not just on a one-off basis, but on an ongoing basis — is a telltale sign that you could benefit from professional consultation. “Some people may find that they use alcohol or other substances to cope with their feelings,” says Dr. Goodman.
- You have almost no interest in doing the things you normally enjoy. It could be anything from hitting the gym, meeting friends for happy hour, or having dinner with your partner.
- Your moods are everywhere. Not only that, but you find it impossible to stabilize them. “Some people may struggle with obsessive-compulsive behaviors, intrusive thoughts, or mood swings that negatively impact their relationships,” says Dr. Goodman.
- You screw up at work. Psychological or emotional problems can affect your attention span, energy level, and ability to concentrate. The consequence (no surprise) can be mistakes at work.
- You get sick more often than before. Such was the case for Dr. Goodman, who has been open about his own struggles with depression. “I personally knew it was time to see a therapist when I saw my physical health start to suffer due to my emotional/mental health issues,” he says. “For some this results in weight loss or gain and for me it has led to physical exhaustion.”
- You feel more anxious than usual. Of those surveyed, almost half of men aged 18 to 34 reported feeling anxious, which is significantly higher than men aged 35 and older. It’s normal to feel anxious when life’s stressors come your way. “Everyone has a different natural level of anxiety and a different threshold, but if your anxiety is worse than your usual mood, you should consider seeking help,” says Dr. Nash. “You shouldn’t expect your level of anxiety to have a dramatic impact on your life. It’s like waiting for stage 4 cancer to see an oncologist. Just like with physical health, you want to take care of any mental health issues as soon as possible.
- You don’t get enough emotional support from your family and friends. Nearly half of the men surveyed said they only received this type of support “sometimes or less often” than they would like. A therapist can make up for this lack of support in your personal life and be the sounding board you need.
How to choose the right therapist for you
Once you decide to attend therapy, other questions come into play. The first is whether to attend in person or virtually. Both types have value, depending on what you need at the moment. “The benefits of in-person therapy are that some therapists can better read auditory and visual cues like voice inflection, eye contact, and body language,” says Dr. Goodman. “Sitting across from you gives them a greater ability to assess your mental, physical and emotional state. You’re there together, in there, no distractions.
Yet telehealth has played an outsized role in meeting mental health needs during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation study, telehealth accounted for 40% of mental health and addictions outpatient visits early in the pandemic, and that number has remained roughly constant. “I personally receive therapy remotely and love the convenience and flexibility,” says Dr. Goodman. “You don’t have to fight traffic or deal with other issues associated with physically moving to your appointment. And if you’re concerned about privacy, you won’t meet other patients in the waiting room. You work with your therapist in the comfort of your own home. The bottom line? As Dr. Goodman says, “There are definite advantages to either method of treatment.”
The next question may be, who is the best person I can see? Several professionals offer psychotherapy: psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, counsellors, psychiatric nurses. When researching one, try to get referrals from trusted sources such as friends or your doctor. If this is not possible, consult the list of mental health professionals who participate in your health insurance plan. Create a working list of names (it doesn’t have to be long), then do your homework. Go online and check the reviews and their credentials.
Different mental health professionals practice different types of therapy, so familiarize yourself with the different approaches to therapy and what they mean:
- Psychoanalysis is the Freudian approach that focuses on altering problematic behaviors, feelings, and thoughts by uncovering their unconscious meanings and motivations.
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy focuses on a person’s thoughts and behaviors.
- Humanistic therapy emphasizes a person’s ability to make rational choices.
- Integrative therapy is a combination of some or all of the above approaches.
“Because of the personal nature of therapy, finding a therapist is a lot like dating someone — you have to find someone you click with,” says Dr. Nash. “Don’t be discouraged if you have to go through a few therapists to find your best fit. Remember that you are the focus of the session, so while you may find a very engaging therapist, avoid those who talk too much about themselves. It may be good to spend time with them, but for a healthy professional relationship, you need to stay the focus of your sessions.
Dr. Nash suggests setting a few criteria when you start your search to help narrow the field. For example, maybe you want a therapist over 40 who has experience working with people who have substance abuse issues.
Treat a mental health emergency like you would any other
Remember that some mental health issues do not lend themselves to a verification process. If you put your personal safety at risk or have suicidal or murderous thoughts, seek help immediately. “Just as there is 9-1-1 for a physical health emergency, there is now 9-8-8 for mental health emergencies,” says Dr. Nash. “You can call or text for immediate assistance.” Whether it’s a crisis situation or daily care, treat your mind and soul the same as your body, doing what it takes to keep it healthy.