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New Approaches To Men's Mental Health Are Vital

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 per cent 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 Australia2. As a consequence, more men die from unhealthy coping mechanisms like suicide, drugs and alcohol:

  • Men are three times more likely to die by suicide3.
  • Men are nearly twice as likely to die through drug use4.
  • Male deaths by alcohol abuse related causes are as almost twice that of females5.

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 Noel 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.

About Kim O’Neill

Kim O’Neill is the Chief Executive Officer of On the Line. Having worked in executive and leadership roles in the community services and not-for-profit sector for the past 28 years, Kim is known for her expertise as a transformational leader. She has extensive experience in implementing state wide policy reform and delivering large scale projects. Kim cares deeply about social justice and is passionate about finding ways to lead change and make a positive difference to people’s lives.

About On the Line

On the Line is a professional social health organisation that delivers outsourced digital counselling solutions on behalf of our funders. We specialise in supporting client groups along the mental health continuum: from those who are high risk and have complex mental health needs, to the worried well, through to integrated physical, mental and social wellbeing. 

[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.



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