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Engaging Young Men Is The Key To Helping Them Beat Mental Illness

Young men tend to find gaming and sport immensely engaging. Harnessing these domains may provide clues as to what might work in future.

06/06/2017 10:43 AM AEST | Updated 06/06/2017 11:00 AM AEST

If Australia is to be genuinely committed to reducing rates of suicide, problematic substance use, and aggression and violence (including alcohol related and family violence), then we must have a coordinated plan for young men's mental health.

Only a small proportion of young men who have a need for care access services receive appropriate treatment for their mental ill-health. As a group, young males are almost three times as likely to die by suicide as their female peers, they display markedly higher rates of involvement with alcohol and other drugs, and comprise 95 percent of the young offender population.

Although the need to develop health services that are relevant and meet the needs of young men has previously been identified, much more needs to be done. A report released by Orygen,The National Centre of Excellence in Youth Mental Health, reveals that the mental health needs of young Australian men are not being well met. While it's true that many young men experience privilege based on their gender, it is also true that young men face a unique range of problems and barriers related to their mental health.

The implications of young men's mental health are far-reaching -- impacting our communities in the broadest sense. Taking a careful look at the statistics, we see that preventable mental illness drives much of the burden of both disease, and mortality, in young men.

Tragically, young men all too often place themselves, and others, in harm's way, be that through substance misuse, behaviours associated with anger or violence, or risk-taking. These behaviours are too often normalised for young men. They are frequently ignored or explained away as young men 'blowing off steam'.

Another critical factor related to young men's mental health is that their symptoms don't necessary align with our current diagnostic systems or processes.

Stigma and societal expectations related to masculinity are key factors in young men's mental health status. Notions of strength, stoicism and invulnerability remain highly prized by our young men.

There are of course exceptions to this, but the expectations that are tacitly and explicitly reinforced to young men too often communicate that it isn't blokey, that it isn't manly, or that it isn't safe to express or disclose vulnerable emotions.

While many young men are indeed able to talk openly about their emotional worlds, others find this experience foreign, difficult or confronting. Some of our environments actively prevent young men from being aware of their emotional experiences.

Another critical factor related to young men's mental health is that their symptoms don't necessarily align with our current diagnostic systems or processes. Rather than experiencing typical emotional distress symptoms such as feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness or tearfulness, social factors drive many young men to externalise their distress through many of the problematic behaviours listed above, such as anger, alcohol and other drug use, and risk-taking.

While these behaviours bring consequences of their own, too often they are not viewed as potential indicators of distress. Because of this, they can often be missed by our health systems, and we need to ensure GPs are better placed to recognise the presence of young men's distress. Especially when young men present for other reasons (i.e. stress or sleep problems), or are unable to articulate their mental health needs.

National data shows that far fewer young men visit the doctor compared with young women. This signals a missed opportunity to engage young men in preventative health care -- so we have to think outside the square. We need to start developing and evaluating acceptable interventions with the capacity to 'reach in' to the lives of young men, rather than waiting for them to visit existing services.

Without acceptable and engaging treatments for young men, opportunities for early intervention are diminished, at the same time increasing the likelihood of greater severity of illness with long-term consequence or suffering.

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Engaging young men is more likely to be successful when services are co-designed with young men themselves. It is here where peer support can play a critical role in facilitating engagement, and in providing a safety net for young men experiencing mental ill-health.

Digital technologies and the world of sports also have scope to facilitate young men's engagement. Young men tend to find gaming and sport immensely engaging. Harnessing these domains may provide clues as to what might work in future.

Re-imagining our services is a critical step. If we are to address the worrying statistics related to young men's mental health, we have to co-design the next generation of services and interventions alongside young men, ensuring they are both effective and relevant.

Starting with young men is important -- they inevitably grow into older men, becoming the role models and influencers for the next generation. Attending to their unspoken mental health needs has critical implications for the health of our society.

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