Man Up: It’s time to talk about men’s mental health

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By SHEETAL SINGH

This story is part of MOJO News campaign #HearMeOut to have a Federal Minister for Suicide Prevention appointed *

“I am calm on the outside, but inside is less than breezy.” 

“It’s just hard enough to fit in when I feel like I am a misfit.”

“In this world I don’t feel like I need to exist.” 

These powerful song lyrics voice the thoughts of one man battling mental illness.

Going by the stage name Fruity Lex, Luke O’Brien raps and performs spoken word poetry to lift the lid on men suffering poor mental health.

Diagnosed with anxiety and depression three years ago, Mr O’Brien survived a suicide attempt before embarking on a journey to spread awareness about men’s mental health through music.

Fruity Lex’s music contains powerful messages to men who aren’t coping with mental health issues. PHOTO: Supplied

Mr O’Brien believes men are often excluded from conversations surrounding their mental wellbeing. 

According to a recent report on Men’s Depression and Suicide by Current Psychiatry, men resist seeking help for depression because of low literacy, self and social stigma. 

The report states, “men’s resistance to help-seeking has most often been explained by their alignments to masculine norms”.

A mental health report released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) in 2015 revealed a worrying trend that at least 45 per cent of men aged between 16 and 80 will experience a form of mental illness at some point in their lives.

Psychologist Claudia Hounslow said, when encountering mental health issues, men were more likely to feel the need to toughen up and get on with things, rather than ask for help.

“The issue is with the word help, it shows vulnerability and men seeking help makes them look weak,” Ms Hounslow said.

“We always see men as protectors rather than sufferers and this creates an unspoken stigma around the word ‘help’.” 

Fruity Lex performing at an event in Melbourne. PHOTO: Supplied

Ms Hounslow said “being manly” is associated with being strong and in control.

“Men are also not rehearsed to talk about their feelings and will present an issue with anger and irritability,” Ms Hounslow said.

The 2015 ABS report also stated 65 percent of men suffering with mental illness never seek any sort of assistance, including talking to a close family member or counsellor. 

Mr O’Brien challenges the stigmas that push men further into darkness.

“I want men to be able to talk about their feelings,” Mr O’Brien said.

“I want to be able to approach people and talk to them, men feel that they can’t talk, and I want to change that.” 

Mr O’Brien was 26-years-old when he was diagnosed with anxiety and depression.

“2016 was rather challenging for me, I was on numerous amounts of medications that made it harder for me [and] I was self-harming and had an overdose attempt in 2016,” Mr O’Brien said.

A poster promoting a recent Fruity Lex and Monk Inferno collaboration gig in Melbourne.

The performer said, in 2016, there was limited discussion about men’s mental health and he responded to his diagnosis by falling into the trap of intrenched masculinity –  trying to cope by being  “a man”.

“I never grew up with an idea that I could talk about it,” Mr O’Brien said.

“Being a man, I never realised that I could be vulnerable, and I tried to take it all in and tried to take my life.” 

ABS general manager of population and social statistics Paul Jelfs wrote in a statement anxiety and depression were the most common forms of mental illness amongst men.

“It’s important to get more men talking about how they’re feeling, with suicide being the leading cause of death for men aged 15 to 44 years in 2015,” Dr Jelfs wrote.

He also stated suicide rates for males and females wildly differ, with men accounting for almost three-quarters of suicide deaths.

According to the latest ABS statistics, men are three times more likely than women to take their own life, or induce self-harm. 

Melbourne-based psychologist Zac Teichmann said men were more likely to commit suicide due to untreated mental health issues.

Melbourne-based psychologist Zac Teichmann. PHOTO: Supplied 

“Although women often have a higher rate of feeling like they want to kill themselves and attempting suicide, men, when they do it, tend to be fatal,” Mr Teichmann said.

ABS data reveals men, especially those under the age of 25, are more likely to turn to drugs and alcohol abuse instead of getting help.

Mr Teichmann says men are not rehearsed to talk about their feelings and that makes it harder for them to open up, leading men to abuse substances as a dangerous form of self-medication.

“Men’s mental health is different than women’s mental health in a way that they experience distress and how they express difficulty,” Mr Teichmann said.

“Society’s attitude changes around the mental health of men compared to women.” 

According to a report by Beyond Blue, 500,000 more Australian men will experience depression and substance abuse at the same time at some point of their lives.

“The way I solved a lot of issues, was going out Friday night and drinking 20 beers and that would be how a lot of men deal with it,” Mr O’Brien said.

“Getting this drunk is also the time that some men would open up and talk about their issues, which is very dangerous [because] they try to avoid it sober.” 

However, Mr O’Brien is trying to change the stigma amongst men that you can’t talk about your mental health while sober.

 Luke O’Brien aka ‘Fruity Lex’ advocates for mental health via his social media platforms. PHOTO: Supplied

“I think men don’t need anything in their system to be able to talk, so when I go out with my friends, I try to engage them in conversations,” Mr O’Brien said.

“It’s amazing what they’ll give out and it is positive.”

In 2016 the ABS found  60 percent of men reported a personal stressor being the leading cause for their mental illness.

These personal stressors can include the death of a friend or family, serious illness, unemployment and separation or divorce from their partners.

Johnathan Hartland, a personal support worker in Melbourne, said he started feeling paranoid and unsafe after he was the victim of an aggravated burglary. Something that seriously affected his mental health. 

“Nothing of value was taken from my house during the house invasion [and] I wasn’t seriously harmed, but I felt my privacy was being invaded,” Mr Hartland said.

“My own house is where I am supposed to feel the safest, that didn’t happen anymore.”

He became paranoid and was always looking over his shoulder, feeling everyone wanted to harm him.

“I was going crazy, losing sleep and didn’t trust anyone. My mental health was in really bad shape and I didn’t even have a lot of people to talk about it with,” Mr Hartland said.

Luke O’Brien wants men to step away from masculine ideals that trap them into thinking it’s weak to seek help for mental illness. PHOTO: Supplied.

Both Mr Hartland and Mr O’Brien use music to cope with their mental health issues. 

Mr O’Brien has hosted multiple music events and has been inviting people from across Melbourne to come and listen to his music about men with anxiety and depression. 

“I started rapping in high schools and at 16-17, when I was going through a really dark period, I used rap as a way to voice myself,” Mr O’Brien said.

Over the past two years he has noticed an improvement in the number of men willing to talk about their mental health.

“It’s okay to be vulnerable and it’s okay to talk about emotions,” Mr O’Brien said.

Australian mental health organisations have launched programs to debunk masculine ideas surrounding mental illness, in a bid to see more men seek help.

Australia’s Beyond Blue website offers self-management strategies and information on mental health services to help young men struggling with mental illness like Mr O’ Brien and Mr Hartland. 

Fruity Lex’s music can be streamed via the Triple J Unearthed website.

* Please sign MOJO News’ petition to have a Federal Minister for Suicide Prevention appointed here.
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