Men's Mental Health and the Challenges of Fatherhood
Trigger Warning: This blog post discusses sensitive topics related to mental health and contains descriptions of personal struggles.
Imagine a world where men feel comfortable expressing their emotions, seeking support, and prioritising their mental well-being. As we mark Men's Health Week, it's important to shine a spotlight on a topic often overlooked: men's mental health. But what is Men's Health Week? It is an initiative that raises awareness about the health challenges faced by men and promotes positive change towards healthy lifestyles. This year, Men’s Health Week begins on 12th June. But this week isn’t just for men! It's a chance for all of us to come together to support our male friends and family members.
In this blog post, we explore men's mental health through the story of Alex, a real person facing common challenges. By sharing Alex's experiences, we aim to break the silence surrounding men's mental health and promote understanding and support. Mental health knows no gender boundaries and deserves our attention. It's also crucial to recognise that discussions on men's mental health encompass a diverse range of experiences, including those of men of colour, and LGBTIQ+ men - particularly transgender men - who each often face unique and amplified challenges. Are you ready? Let's get started.
Breaking the Silence: Mental Health Stigma
Societal attitudes sometimes make it tough for men to seek help or show vulnerability when it comes to mental health. Toxic masculinity refers to these harmful expectations society puts on men. Gender conceptions are formed by society and can result in divisions in power, responsibilities, aspects of selfhood, and norms in expressing emotion. Men are often pushed to be strong, self-reliant, and unemotional, and not meeting these standards can be viewed as a sign of weakness or failure. It’s no wonder some men fear judgement and discrimination if they fall short of these expectations!
Let us tell you about our friend Alex. Alex was born about 40 years ago in Melbourne and grew up in a household where children were expected to be quiet, respectful, and obedient. Alex’s father left when he was a baby, and his mother fell into repeating the abusive parenting she herself experienced as a child. Physical punishment was used for minor transgressions and emotional manipulation was frequent. Much of Alex’s childhood was spent raising his younger siblings. Before he even hit his teens, things took another turn. His mother felt she was no longer able to care for three children, and Alex entered the foster system. After an unsettling few years bouncing around group homes, he luckily landed with an awesome family to live with until he turned 18. That's when he ventured out into the world to make his own path. Alex spent his early adult years burying his childhood trauma deep inside. He was a bit shy, but he was well-liked and had lots of friends, and moved around doing a couple of great jobs. He reconnected with his father, who hadn’t seen him since he was a baby, and had some minor contact with his mother. But as time went on, his anxiety and depression started getting worse because he continued to keep all of his emotions bottled up. Alex began trying to control his bubbling emotions with retail therapy and bouncing from distraction to distraction. He started having anger outbursts and sudden deep depressions. They would shortly afterwards ‘resolve’ themselves, but he would then begin the cycle of bottling once again. He said:
“[I would] always think a new job or hobby or car would help but the shine wears off and then I’m back here again. I think these things just occupy the mind from the pain and sadness that I keep buried. But then life gets in the way and I push away the sadness and it bottles up and I get angry at life. I blame everything and everyone (my work, my emails, others) but they just feed into the self-doubt and I struggle to stay afloat. That goes away with distraction, but when life gets hard and I’m challenged it all comes back.”
Alex's story serves as a powerful reflection of the challenges many men encounter when it comes to their mental health. Whilst not all mental health struggles stem from childhood, they are all valid, no matter if you can pinpoint a cause or not. Alex felt the societal pressures as a man to be resilient, and it made it difficult for him to acknowledge his own struggles and seek the help he needed. This underscores the importance of creating an environment where men feel empowered to prioritise their well-being. We need to break down the barriers and overcome the stigma of men’s mental health to promote open dialogue and encourage help-seeking behaviours without fear of judgement.
Mental Health Challenges During Fatherhood
Fatherhood can bring about more challenges in terms of mental health. There are challenges fathers and mothers share alike; balancing work and family life and adjusting to changing relationship dynamics. Then there are more specific difficulties placed on men; limited paternity leave, the pressure to be a provider, and limiting emotional expression. It's understandable that fathers can feel overwhelmed at times! It can be a lot to handle.
At 28, Alex met his now-partner, and six years later they had a child, Max. Max is now 6 years old, but from the moment his son was born, Alex experienced a huge shift in his mental health. He had already been wrestling with his long-term depression and anxiety, but suddenly he was hit with the weight of fatherhood as well as with the added grief he felt as he began to truly recognise his own lack of a happy childhood. Many of Max’s normal developmental upsets and outbursts were triggering for Alex, and he constantly battled against his own anger. He said:
“I’ve got to prove myself again and again that I can be the dad I did not have, and Max doesn’t end up like me.”
Alex took a leap and began seeing a psychologist, but he held back and didn’t really open up, and before he knew it, he stopped going. It felt to him like nothing had changed. He said:
“I seemed to be going around and around.”
He then continued pushing on in silence, and found he was increasingly unhappy with the impatient, short-tempered, demanding father he felt he was becoming. He had an image in his mind of a ‘perfect’ father, and always felt he was falling short. This added to his guilt and depression, and he didn’t know what to do to change things.
Promoting Self-Care and Well-Being, and Seeking Support and Resources
With the societal stigma on mental health, it’s no wonder so many men never feel confident enough to seek help. But it's so important for men to maintain self-care, seek support from their partners, friends, or support groups, and open up about their feelings. Remember, you're not alone in this journey, and taking care of your mental health is essential for both you and your family's well-being! Taking care of yourself is like putting on your oxygen mask before assisting others on a plane. It's not just about you; it's about your whole family.
Six months ago, when Max was 5 years old, a combination of things helped Alex take steps forward for his mental health. Alex opened up more to his partner and his closest friends about the depth of his struggles. Some of his friends had been experiencing similar things and were relieved to be able to open up a dialogue about it. Alex (accompanied by his partner for moral support) went to the GP to get a mental health care plan, and then started seeing a new psychologist who specialised in areas relevant to Alex. He began antidepressant medication - which he had for many years tried to avoid purely because he saw it as a sign of admitting defeat. He began to care for himself more and be kinder to himself; he started meditation, scheduling downtime for himself and for his partner, picked up a new hobby, and began taking more care with his sleep schedule. He began to read lots of parenting material, particularly regarding children and their emotional health. This helped him better understand Max as a person and address his own childhood trauma.
Why not encourage the men in your life to try some of these tips for practicing self-care?
- Carve out 'me time': Schedule regular moments for yourself. Use this time for activities that recharge you, like reading, going for a walk, or practicing mindfulness.
- Seek social support: Connect with other fathers or supportive friends who understand parenting. Talk to your partner or family about your feelings and challenges. Seek professional help if needed. Share experiences, advice, and lend a listening ear to one another. (See resources at bottom of blog).
- Share parenting duties: Collaborate with your partner or co-parent to distribute responsibilities. Sharing the load allows time for self-care and reduces overwhelm.
- Maintain healthy boundaries: Set limits and prioritise your well-being. Recognise your limits and don't take on more than you can handle.
- Practice stress management: Find healthy ways to manage stress, such as exercise, meditation, or engaging in hobbies you enjoy.
- Prioritise sleep: Establish a regular sleep routine and create a sleep-friendly environment. Take turns with your partner in attending to night time parenting duties.
There are many avenues out there for men who need some support. So where can you start?
Therapy is like having a personal cheerleader who's got your back. Talking to a psychologist, psychiatrist, or counsellor can help you navigate the ups and downs of life - or specifically fatherhood if you need - providing a safe space to explore your feelings and develop coping strategies. Your best bet is talking first to your General Practitioner. They can assist you with a Mental Health Care Plan. This is a plan developed between you and your GP to outline the treatment and support you will receive. Schedule an appointment with your GP and let them know your mental health concerns. They can then help you with treatment options, referrals, ongoing support, and Medicare rebates.
Anonymous helplines (phone, text or webchat)
You can also ring or text a helpline for some immediate one-on-one anonymous support.
If group vibes are more your thing, support groups are where it's at! Connecting with other men who've been there can be a game-changer. Swap stories, share tips, and feel that camaraderie.
Websites / Online communities
And let's not forget about the power of online information and communities. There are many websites that offer copious amounts of information and support. For online communities - from forums to social media groups - there's a whole world of men’s mental health support or even specific fatherhood-related support just a click away. So, don't hesitate to reach out, join the conversation, and tap into the collective wisdom of fellow men.
- Black Dog Institute
- National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO) (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander)
- Black Rainbow (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander LGBTIQ+)
- LGBTIQ+ Health Australia.
Taking care of your mental health is not selfish, it's essential! Just like you can't pour from an empty cup, you can't be the dad you want to be if you're running on empty. Whether it's taking some 'me time' to recharge, engaging in activities you love, seeking support when you need it, or simply practicing good sleep and healthy habits, remember that investing in your well-being sets the stage for being the best dad you can be.
Let's take this opportunity during Men's Health Week to make men's mental health a priority and smash the stigma around seeking help. By sharing stories like Alex's, we've looked at some of the challenges men face when it comes to their mental well-being and reaching out for support. So let's keep challenging those societal expectations, having open conversations, and creating safe spaces for men to share their struggles. And hey, remember, mental health is something that affects everyone, regardless of gender! Together, we can build a world where every man feels supported and empowered to prioritise their mental well-being. So, let's keep the conversation going and support one another along the way!
World Health Organization, 2003. Investing in mental health. World Health Organization.
Ahmedani, B.K., 2011. Mental health stigma: society, individuals, and the profession. Journal of social work values and ethics, 8(2), pp.4-1.
Rosenfield, S. and Smith, D., 2010. Gender and mental health: Do men and women have different amounts or types of problems. A handbook for the study of mental health: Social contexts, theories, and systems, pp.256-267.