International Men’s Day: Many areas still need shaking up

‘We would do well to give boys and young men a more healthy image of themselves’

Although declining, the rate for men has stubbornly remained at three to four times that for women. Photograph: Getty Images

Although declining, the rate for men has stubbornly remained at three to four times that for women. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Sunday is International Men’s Day and it occurs as the image of men has been taking a battering — think Harvey Weinstein, Donald Trump, Kevin Spacey.

But behind all that — and I am not trying to minimise any of it — lie other issues that affect men in their day to day lives. Most are familiar and in some cases things are getting better, in others not.

Take, for instance, the idea that men won’t talk about their problems. Though this is true of a lot of men, a spokeswoman for Aware recently told The Irish Times that the gender balance of people calling its depression helpline is now 50-50 whereas in the past it had been 40-60 in favour of women. And more men are attending the Aware support group than women.

The decline in suicide rates over the past few years is another development we can be glad of. Although declining, the rate for men has stubbornly remained at three to four times that for women.

To change this, public health efforts need to focus on young and middle aged men. The peak age of suicide for men is 20-24, followed by 45-49. The peak age for women is 50-54 followed by 45-49.

Self-harm by drug overdoses and other methods is commonly seen as a female phenomenon. Indeed, one in every 131 females aged 15 to 19 is seen in the hospital because of self-harm. But one in every 194 males aged 20 to 24 is seen for self-harm. This also is an area that needs focussed attention in both genders.

But when you want to improve people’s mental health and resilience it’s important to look also at wider sources of stress and distress in our society.

Consider the world of work. What is now often called ‘precarious employment’ has been increasing over the past decade, according to the trade union supported research body, the Nevin Economic Research Institute. Temporary contracts (especially for younger workers) and part-time employment are all on the rise and, not surprisingly in these circumstances, the proportion of working poor is also up. Over 16 per cent of all Irish workers were in material deprivation in 2015 compared to less than 5 per cent in 2007, the institute says.

Poverty means inequality and inequality has long been linked to poor mental health.

Behind those dry statistics are many young men living with the disappointment of not being able to get a secure job at good pay and therefore with little hope of ever qualifying for a mortgage, for instance.

And all of this is saying nothing about the feared loss of jobs to artificial intelligence programs and machines. The Bank of England has forecast that 15 million jobs could be lost to AI in the UK.

In this context of disappearing jobs, we need to be on the alert about education. The OECD noted in 2015 that “young men are significantly more likely than young women to have low skills and poor academic achievement.”

Overall, we have comparatively well-educated workforce, but young men who end up with no skills and poor academic achievements could be on a hiding to nothing, not only in today’s world of work but in the world of work that’s just around the next corner.

Many more specific areas need shaking up.

Custody of children

For instance, when a marriage breaks up the assumption is that it is the man who will leave the family home. It is also assumed, and is the case in the overwhelming majority of instances, that the mother will retain custody of the children.

Two years ago, then Fine Gael TD Alan Shatter stated in the Dáil that there was a problem which he described as “enormous” of mothers deliberately making it difficult for fathers who are living separately to have access to their children. In these cases, the children become pawns in the conflict between mother and father.

Most lone mothers do not behave like this, and some lone fathers don’t see their children as often as the mothers, and children, want them to. But the effect on the mental health of men unfairly blocked from seeing their children is, I think, obvious — and it cannot, in most cases, be good for the welfare of their children either.

We keep coming back to mental health, mental wellbeing, and how they are affected by and economic and social circumstances and by behaviour.

The mental health of both men and women would, I think, benefit greatly from an upgrading of the place of mental health policy in government.

Niall “Bressie” Breslin makes a telling point about this on the A Lust for Life mental health website of which he is a co-founder. When Helen McEntee became Minister for European affairs in a Cabinet reshuffle in June, and was replaced as Minister of State for Mental Health by Jim Daly, she was still, he writes, “only developing her relationships with the relevant parties, individuals and organisations.”

On one level this is business as usual in politics. On the other hand it shows that areas such as mental health suffer from, often, a relatively short involvement by junior ministers.

To improve the mental health of all, he suggests, we need a senior minister for mental health with power, control and authority.

All of this matters in the context of the mental health of individual men and their families.

Meantime, we would do well to give boys and young men a more healthy image of themselves by talking in a positive way about what it is to be a man — even when we have to do so in the teeth of disgraceful behaviour by powerful old men.

Padraig O’Morain is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.

If you have been affected by issues in this article, help and support is available from the Samaritans on freephone 116123 or or email jo_at_samaritans.org or Freecall Pieta House at 1800 247 247

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