It’s no secret that many men struggle to open up about problems, especially if it’s to do with their mental health. Indeed, new research commissioned by the Mental Health Foundation for National Stress Awareness Day on 7th November found that less than a quarter of men (24%) suffering from stress had discussed it with a friend or family member.
Worse still, the survey found that almost one in three men (31%) drink alcohol, or drink more alcohol, to try to deal with stress. We spoke to Ed Davie at the Mental Health Foundation, about how you can recognise and deal with stress drinking.
How do you recognise that you are stress drinking?
The jargon term would be mindfulness, but that’s because what mindfulness really means is being aware of your own emotions and behaviour. Half the battle is for people to be honest with themselves.
This is difficult, especially for men – to face up to the fact that they’re not handling things as well as they might do. Instinctively men want to say to themselves and others, “I can deal with it, I can look after myself”, but you have to be aware that’s not always possible and that’s not a sign of weakness.
If you are dealing with it by drinking too much and anaesthetising yourself that’s really unhelpful. Alcohol is a depressant. You might feel good for a bit but the next day you’re going to feel awful and not just hungover. It can be very detrimental to your mental and physical health, and it doesn’t help you get to the root cause of what’s stressing you out and causing the problem.
How can you deal with stress in a healthier way?
It’s really good to talk to someone else. If it’s work-related stress it’s generally good to talk to your manager. A good manager will support you and recognise that you’re going to be the most productive you can be if they don’t overload you.
I recognise that not all managers are fantastic at that, but you can find other outlets – your partner, friends or other members of your family. The worst thing is to bottle it up, and not share your feelings and problems. The very act of sharing a problem can help. You find new ways of dealing with it and managing it.
Men are notorious for keeping things to themselves. Not going to the GP, not telling their partners and friends about what’s bothering them, self-medicating through alcohol and then, in the most extreme cases, committing suicide. Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 50, and quite a lot of those men have never come to the attention of medical services before. No-one knew they had a problem. What we need people to do is recognise when they’re not coping as well as they could and share it with someone.
And we need to look out for each other. You don’t have to be a psychiatrist to recognise when someone is not coping, drinking too much, not communicating like they used to, being moody. It’s important that we look out for each other, ask each other if we’re all right and ask more than once. The British way is to go “yeah, I’m fine” but we need to go a bit deeper than that.
If you work in a very boozy environment, how do you go about cutting back?
That’s really hard. I haven’t had a drink for nine years, but I used to be in a stressful environment as a political journalist in the Westminster lobby where there was a lot of alcohol around and lot of demanding deadlines. I knew I was stressed and I knew I was drinking too much, but I didn’t want to recognise it. In the end I got made redundant.
In a way I was fortunate I was made redundant and got a new job in a different work environment where there wasn’t that kind of culture. They didn’t know me as a drinker so I could reinvent myself as a sober person.
For some people, if they’re having a hard time and they’re really unhappy, a change of job or career is not a bad option. It certainly worked for me, though I wouldn’t have planned it the way it happened.
For those who don’t have that opportunity, going to the pub and not drinking is much more socially acceptable these days. When I first stopped people would think it was weird, but these days I know lots of people who drink alcohol but sometimes choose to drink non-alcoholic beer. And non-alcoholic beer is much nicer than it used to be!
If people know you as a drinker and expect it of you, then it is more difficult. But again, we have to support each other, and do what’s right for ourselves and our friends.