You know how important mental health is, but according to a recent survey, you may not be willing to take action to improve it. Hearst Media, the parent company of Men’s Health, asked 1,517 men between the ages of 18 and 80 living in the U.S. about their healthcare concerns. Four out of five guys said that their mental and emotional health deserves the same attention they give their physical health.
Great, right? Well, only two-thirds of the men surveyed said they would actually seek therapy if the situation was dire. During periods of, say, anxiety, depression, or sadness, one in three guys would not see a professional for help. In other words, men still stigmatize mental health care.
“There is stigma associated with men showing any signs of vulnerability,” says Jake Goodman, MD, psychiatry-resident physician and mental health advocate. “We’re brought up in a society where men are expected to be strong. To admit to feelings of anxiety or depression would be to suggest that we’re not tough enough. So we tend to hide these feelings. We’ve been taught to ‘man up.’”
This concept of manning up may be at least part of why one in three respondents said that only men with serious issues—meaning, anything that prevents you from functioning—should see a therapist. That’s a belief that can damage men’s health in countless ways.
“There is stigma associated with men showing any signs of vulnerability.”
“You don’t need a diagnosable disorder to benefit from therapy,” says Ken Nash, M.D., 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 eat a more nutritious diet or get a personal trainer; you just realize that you aren’t at your peak, and you 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 COVID-19 pandemic and the many uncertainties of daily life, the question isn’t who’s anxious/stressed/depressed/all-of-the-above right now, but who isn’t?
How do you know if therapy is right for you?
“Generally, everyone could benefit from some sort of mental health treatment, but that doesn’t need 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 ability to enjoy activities, working with a therapist can help you build up your resiliency and give you tools to help you succeed.”
Here are some signs you could benefit from seeing a therapist:
- You can’t sleep. Or maybe you’re sleeping more than you usually do. Either one 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 having depression can result in sleep issues. In either case, a therapist can help.
- You’re drinking/eating/fill-in-the-blank to excess. Engaging in destructive habits—not just as a one-off, but on a continuous basis—is a telltale sign you could benefit from seeing a professional. “Some people may find that they are using alcohol or other substances to cope with their feelings,” says Dr. Goodman.
- You have virtually no interest in doing the things you normally enjoy. This could be anything from going to the gym to meeting friends for happy hour to having dinner with your significant other.
- Your moods are all over the place. Not only that, but you’re finding it impossible to steady them. “Some people may struggle with obsessive-compulsive behaviors, intrusive thoughts, or mood swings that are impacting their relationships in a negative way,” says Dr. Goodman.
- You’re screwing up at work. Psychological or emotional issues can do a number on your attention span, energy levels, and ability to concentrate. The consequence (no surprise) can be errors at work.
- You get sick more often than you used to. That was the case for Dr. Goodman, who has been open about his own struggles with depression. “Personally, I knew it was time to see a therapist when I saw my physical health beginning to suffer as a result of my emotional/mental health struggles,” he says. “For some, that manifests as losing or gaining weight and for me it led to physical exhaustion.”
- You feel more anxious than usual. Among those surveyed, nearly half of men ages 18 to 34 reported feeling anxious—significantly higher than men 35 and over. 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 wait until your anxiety levels are dramatically impacting your life. That’s like waiting until you have stage 4 cancer before seeing an oncologist. Just as with physical health, you want to attend to 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 reported receiving this kind of support only “sometimes or less often” than they’d 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 seek therapy, more 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 pros of in-person therapy are that some therapists can better read aural and visual cues like voice inflection, eye contact, and body language,” says Dr. Goodman. “Sitting across from you provides them greater ability to assess your mental, physical, and emotional state. You’re there together, in it, no distractions.”
Yet telehealth played an outsized role in meeting mental health needs during COVID-19 pandemic. According to research by the Kaiser Family Foundation, telehealth represented 40 percent of mental health and substance use outpatient visits in the early days of the pandemic, and that number has stayed pretty much consistent. “I personally receive therapy remotely and love the convenience and flexibility,” says Dr. Goodman. “You’re not having to battle traffic or deal with other issues associated with physically traveling to your appointment. And if privacy is a concern for you, you’re not running into other patients in the waiting room. You’re working with your therapist from 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 for me to see? A number of professionals offer psychotherapy: psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, counselors, psychiatric nurses. When searching for one, try and get some referrals from trusted sources such as friends or your physician. If that’s not possible, check 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 out the reviews and their credentials.
Different mental health professionals practice different types of therapy, so familiarize yourself with various approaches to therapy and what they mean:
- Psychoanalysis is the Freudian approach that concentrates on changing problematic behaviors, feelings, and thoughts by discovering their unconscious meanings and motivations.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on a person’s thoughts and behaviors.
- Humanistic therapy emphasizes a person’s capacity to make rational choices.
- Integrative therapy is a combination of some or all of the above approaches.
“Due to the personal nature of therapy, finding a therapist is a bit like dating—you have to find someone you click with,” says Dr. Nash. “Don’t be discouraged if you have to go through a couple of therapists to find your best fit. Remember that you are the focus of the session, so although you may find a therapist who’s very engaging, avoid those who talk too much about themselves. They may be great to hang out with, but for a healthy professional relationship, you should remain 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 female therapist who is over 40 and has experience working with people who have substance use issues.
Treat a mental health emergency like you would any other
Remember, some mental health issues don’t lend themselves to a vetting process. If you are putting your personal safety at risk or having suicidal or homicidal 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 everyday care, treat your mind and soul the same way you do your body—by doing what it takes to keep it healthy.