awareness and access: why we need both to save men from dying too young
The health industry has made great strides in the past 15 years to raise awareness of men’s mental health issues in Australia. But awareness is only the first step – now we must focus on access.
The streets are different in Australia in November. Once clean-shaven men start sporting ‘the trucker’, ‘the rock star’ or ‘the connoisseur’. The humble moustache takes on a life of its own, and, wonderfully, helps start conversations about men’s health. But, now that Movember has come to a close, we must ask the question - where do men turn during the other 11 months of the year?
Since 2004 the Movember Foundation has been campaigning to raise awareness of the risks of prostate cancer and testicular cancer, and mental health and suicide prevention among men. In Australia, 75 per cent of suicides are men, and globally, every minute, a man dies of suicide.
I fully support awareness campaigns like Movember that have helped destigmatize conversations about men’s mental health and have brought those conversations to the forefront of Australian workplaces and society. Governments, businesses and individuals have all rallied around the cause.
But, as with all health campaigns, the gap between awareness and behaviour change is a mighty chasm. Being aware of the dangers of HIV/AIDS does not mean people always use condoms, and decades of school awareness programs have not stopped everyone from smoking. Awareness is an important and necessary first step, but what comes next?
Lonely hearts die young
A few weeks ago the Australian Loneliness Report made national headlines for revealing that one in four adult Australians are lonely. The report painted a bleak picture of our society, with nearly 55 per cent of the population reporting they feel a lack of companionship at least sometimes.
While males reported better physical health, they did report less social interaction than females, and a 2015 study stated that there is evidence to suggest that loneliness is associated with a 26 per cent increased likelihood of mortality.
Time and again in my work as a psychologist and lawyer I have witnessed men put up internal barriers to not seek help - their lack of social interaction and fear of judgement are obstacles that definitely need to be addressed. But, external barriers to accessing mental health support, such as cost, the location of services, and lack of knowledge of how to access services are just as important, and just as much a challenge, as internal barriers.
Opening a door
According to a 2008 Australian Bureau of Statistics report men are less likely to seek help than women, with only one in four men who experience anxiety or depression accessing treatment.
Today, inevitably, men begin their journey to accessing help on the Internet. But, with so many services, websites and touch points, many quickly become overwhelmed and never follow through on getting treatment. It is incredibly important that all men in Australia have a trusted source they can easily access to receive mental health support.
Telehealth has been around for some time - rural Australians and employee well-being programs for remote workers have long accessed the expertise of GPs and specialists via telephone, and more recently, the Internet. But, telehealth has rarely been used on a significant scale for mental health services or been applied to urban patients - the belief is that those in the city and suburban environments can readily access mental health professionals face-to-face.
But, in my 12 years as a psychologist, rarely has the problem of access been as simple as proximity to services. Accessing a mental health professional should be about finding a trustworthy expert that is the best fit for the client and be as simple as a mouse click. Something you can do on a lunch break or on a weekend from the comfort of your own home.
Many of the barriers men face in seeking mental health treatment can be overcome using an online service. Using the Internet as a platform for psychological consultations could be perceived as impersonal, but caring about patients and supporting them through their mental health journey can just as easily be done via a screen as in an office. Telehealth means whether in Mildura, Brisbane or Broken Hill, men can get the support they need in their own time, and on their terms.
Men’s mental health is a tricky and complex problem, but with awareness and access, I believe we can make Australia a less lonely place.