two men fishing & chatting - activity based approaches to men's mental health are part of the change we need

New approaches to men's mental health are vital

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By Kim O’Neill, CEO, On the Line

More than 45% of Australians aged 16-85 years have experienced a mental illness at some point in their life, yet 65% percent of people with a diagnosable mental illness do not access treatment.[1]

Whilst the differences in the gender prevalence of mental disorders is modest, men access mental health services at reduced rates. Men account for only 40% of the Medicare subsidised mental health services in Australia[2].

As a consequence, more men die from unhealthy coping mechanisms like suicide, drugs and alcohol:

  • Men are three times more likely to die by suicide[3]
  • Men are nearly twice as likely to die through drug use[4]
  • Male deaths by alcohol abuse related causes are as almost twice that of females[5].

What can account for these marked differences? It could be that one of the big reasons for men’s reluctance to get help when they need it is a combination of stigma associated with disclosing mental health issues and the availability of services tailored to meet the needs of men.

As the body of evidence to help improve the effectiveness of male oriented programs is building, interventions can be better tailored to meet the needs of men.


How our sector can adapt


Other modalities

In recent years we have seen a substantial increase in ‘non-traditional’ mechanisms of counselling, with phone, online and other digital approaches becoming more widespread. These are great potential solutions for those with geographic barriers to access help, but can also better suit those for whom face to face or being ‘on the couch’ is unappealing and ineffective. The growth in these alternative approaches is a welcome development and allows more people to get the help they need.


Tailoring to gender preferences

Another way we can adapt is to look to gender relevant approaches. This approach is not new, but lags well behind other areas in testing, research and practice. Emerging initiatives such as ‘Man Island’ that look at the unique styles and preferences of men are a step in the right direction.

Many of us are familiar with the concept of communication styles and we know that these differ by gender. As this great piece about better conversations with men explains, a simple change of stance can greatly help the success of any communication. Many men prefer the ‘shoulder to shoulder’ style of communicating where direct eye contact is minimised – think of guys discussing things while watching sport, fishing or during another activity.


Activity based approaches

The broader concept of using activity based approaches to conversations about emotional health is one that has over time been shown to be particularly effective for men. This includes looking at environment and venues, with activity conducted in sporting or workplace environments gaining popularity and finding success. Check out our interview with social worker Leon on overcoming the barriers to getting help for men.


Reframing our message

Another way we can adapt is to reframe both the approach and the language we use. On MensLine Australia, our counsellors are specifically trained to employ a more goal or solutions-oriented approach to help, rather than just ‘talking about feelings’.

This different approach can also be better communicated by changing passive, victim oriented language such as ‘suffering from mental health issues’ to more goal oriented terms like ‘mental fitness’. Talking about help seeking as a demonstration of strength, taking control and a way of getting things back on track can flip the negative perceptions. Asking men if they have been ‘struggling with’ or ‘battling against’ pressures rather than ‘feeling sad or depressed’ can be more effective. Even the simple re-labeling of mental health issues under the banner of ‘stress’ makes men much more likely to seek help.

Many sectors, industries and organisations have adapted as people’s needs have changed and our understanding of their challenges has improved. Those of us who work in social and mental health must also look to new approaches to ensure that collectively, we offer a variety of options for people to easily find and access the help that best suits them.

As a sector, we need to continue to look beyond the traditional model of therapy to continually find new ways to make it easier for people to engage and actively promote these alternatives. The health of our society and those within it depends on it.



[1] Australian Bureau of Statistics, Mental Health Statistics, 2015

[2] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare Medicare subsidised mental health-related services 2016-17

[3] Australian Bureau of Statistics – Causes of Death, Australia, 2016.

[4] Australian Bureau of Statistics – Causes of Death, Australia, 2016.

[5] VicHealth – Alcohol kills more than 5,500 Australians every year 2014.