The Male Mental Health Timebomb Is a Problem for Everyone

Writing for the Huffington Post on the 20th of October 2015 Dr Fox writes about the dangers of depression in men in Britain.

When I was campaigning for the Conservative party leadership in 2005, I wanted to make mental health a key issue. One of my Parliamentary colleagues told me "I was going to vote for you but not if you are going to talk about things like that. Voters don't want to hear about that". It struck me as wrong on several fronts.

First, I believed that many voters did, and still do, want to discuss the subject and second, even if they didn't, it is the duty of policymakers to lead and not just follow public opinion. Perhaps most important was the subtext to his opposition - that this was a subject best kept in the dark, something that polite society would want to avoid. Herein lies one of the biggest obstacles to getting mental health issues onto a par with physical illness - the fact that there is, unbelievably in 21st Century Britain, still a taboo surrounding mental illness.

Taken along with late presentation of symptoms, and the availability of treatment, it represents one of the main reasons for poor outcomes. Is this problem worse among men? My own experience as both a GP and as an MP would tend to suggest that it is.

The culture of our society makes it difficult for many men to admit that they cannot cope with the stresses and strains around them. Some feel that they have failed in their role as the breadwinner or head of the household if they succumb to depression, severe anxiety or worse. Stereotyping in the media, entertainment and advertising can exacerbate this and lead to feelings of social failure and inadequacy which can worsen the underlying problem. Fortunately, this is beginning to change but not quickly enough.

The statistics relating to the worst manifestation of the failure to deal with the mental problems facing men, the rate of suicide, are deeply worrying. British men are three times as likely to die by suicide as British women. Suicide remains the most common cause of death in men under the age of 35. Over a quarter (26%) of 24-34 year old males who die take their own lives, compared to 13% amongst women. What's worse, the problem seems to be creeping up the age range.

A recent report suggested that suicide among middle aged men had risen by 76% between 2006 and 2014. What's more, for those actually receiving help, the suicide rate was three times higher for those receiving care at home as those admitted for in-patient care.

What can we do to deal with this epidemic? Dealing with the cultural issue would be a start - it is one of the last great taboos we need to break - if we are to get men to seek help before it is too late.

We also need to better understand the drivers that cause increased male mental illness (for example, unemployment is much more likely to result in suicide in men compared to women). When patients do pluck up the courage to seek help, and the difficulty to do this must not be underestimated, the appropriate treatment must be available.

The government has recently introduced waiting time targets for "talking therapies" yet there is completely unacceptable variation in provision in different parts of the country. We must also ensure that, when it is deemed appropriate, sufficient in-patient places are available, reversing the trend of recent years.

These things together would be a start in dealing with the problem but that is all. The mental health timebomb currently exploding among the male population is a problem for everyone, including the women who love and care for them. It is time for us all to take action.