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Male mental health: Why we need to look out for the boys

Global access to healthcare

PUBLISHED: 10 June 2019 | LAST UPDATED: 9 October 2023

We could all benefit from paying a bit more attention to our mental health. It’s easy to stop and take notice when something physical is wrong – when we’re coughing with flu, or an ankle or elbow is aching. But when something’s not right mentally, it can be harder to stop and take note. Life throws us many challenges and trying to keep on top of them all isn’t always easy, especially if you're away from your usual support network. That’s why it’s important to sometimes take a step back and check in with our mental health. 

A global picture of mental health

In 2015 the World Health Organisation estimated that 4.4% of the global population suffered from depression and 3.6% from anxiety – although many people suffer from both. Depression seems to occur more in females (5.1%) than males (3.6%) – and the same can be said of anxiety, with 4.6% of females suffering compared with 2.6% of males. However, male suicide rates are consistently higher. In low and middle-income countries where nearly 80% of all suicides happen, 1.6 male suicides take place for each female suicide. In high-income countries, up to three times as many men die by suicide than women. This may be because men struggle opening up about their mental health when a problem first starts, allowing it to escalate. 

Is society’s expectation of men to blame?

Feelings and emotions aren’t easily associated with the stereotypical image of a man as ‘tough’ and ‘strong’. The good news, however, is that these attitudes are gradually changing. 

A study from the Men’s Health Forum found that men prefer to use less clinical language when talking about their feelings. They found men subtly down-play their feelings by using phrases like ‘feeling down’ rather than ‘depressed,’ and ‘stressed’ rather than ‘overwhelmed.’ Younger participants said they’d be most likely to describe themselves to others as ‘emotional’ but older participant groups said the word ‘emotional’ was ‘girly.’ Perhaps this could give us an idea of warning signs to look out for when talking to our friends, brothers, fathers, children or colleagues about how they’re feeling. 

Mental health issues can start early, and can stay with us into adulthood

Worldwide, 10-20% of children and adolescents experience mental disorders. Surprisingly, half of all mental illnesses begin by the age of 14 and three-quarters by our mid-20s.

BBC statistics around how mental health issues can develop early.

To get ahead of this, more and more schools are taking a preventative approach – building resilience and emotional awareness within their students. The hope is that young people won’t wait until a mental health crisis arises before they ask for help. Teaching mindfulness to children is one way to help them to understand their feelings and arm them with tools to help them face issues as they age and go through life. Some schools are part of projects that help children to develop their own wellbeing practices to share across their school and wider community. Could these early lessons have us see a cultural shift in mental health and the attitudes towards it as younger generations move through life? 

You can find out more about resilience and why it matters in our dedicated guide to resilience. We’ve also worked with AXA Physiologists to learn about mindfulness and how it can benefit us all, from mindfulness to help us sleep, to mindful eating.

Mental health support at universities around the world

Support for young people doesn’t end at school – universities around the world are taking steps to support their students through their transition into adulthood.

South Africa – The University of Western Cape has developed an app for students to contact staff about mental health issues without having to talk face to face. 

India – Manipal University has opened a confidential student centre to provide counselling to students in a country where mental health support is low. 

Australia – Monash University invites students to take part in courses including mental health first aid and suicide intervention to enable them to support each other.

Role models can provide hope for the future 

With more schools and universities around the world opening up the conversation about mental health in childhood and early adulthood, and through understanding the challenges their fathers, uncles and older brothers may have encountered, today’s men can act as role models for the men of the future.

In the UK, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are very influential advocates for mental wellbeing. The Royal Foundation campaigns to tackle stigma and encourage healthy conversations about mental health for all.  They’ve launched a series of Mental Health support services and fundraise to keep them available for anyone who needs them.

Getting the conversation started 

So, where do you start? Starting a conversation about mental health can be tricky, especially if the person you're worried about isn't close by, but it can also be life-saving. Whether you’re concerned about someone else or are having difficulties yourself, we’ve put together some ideas that might be useful when beginning the conversation with a friend, family member or colleague.

  • Even if the conversation seems light-hearted, when someone you’re worried about mentions their feelings, just double check if there’s anything more they want to talk about. Try to match the tone of the conversation so that it doesn’t begin to feel intimidating. And if you can’t have the conversation in person because you’re in different countries or cities, try using real-time digital communications such as video chats, which may help you pick up on visual signs of concern and show you’re actively listening.
  • Keep a mental note of how they tell you they’re feeling – if they regularly mention that they’re stressed or tired, ask if there’s anything going on that’s making them feel that way.
  • If someone seems highly strung, or ready to snap, ask what’s really getting to them – anger and frustration are behaviours we often use to vent emotional feelings.
  • It’s an automatic response to say we’re feeling fine, but if you know someone isn’t, then gently ask them again. They might not feel ready to talk, so let them know you’ll be there when they’re ready.
  • Talking about mental health problems can be exhausting, for both of you. It might help to allocate some time specifically for the conversation, so that the person you’re worried about can prepare for it and know that the conversation will last a certain amount of time.
  • Sometimes, the most helpful thing you can do is just to listen. It’s important that you don’t take on the problems and stresses from other people. It’s nice to be there for friends and family when they need you, but it’s important that you take time to look after yourself, too.

If you or someone you care about is struggling, there are plenty of helpful resources online. Health at Hand is a confidential health information helpline available 24/7 to our customers and their family. Experienced counsellors are on hand at any time to put your mind at ease – so you’re not worrying a moment longer than you need to. If you’re an AXA – Global Healthcare customer and would like to know more about how to use this service, you can read more here

Staying in touch with our mental health is just as important as our physical health. We recommend mentioning it at a health check even if you feel fine. This will help you create a habit of talking about your mental health while also helping you keep track of how you’re feeling. 

The information in this article is correct at the time of publishing.


  7. Men’s Heath Forum, Mind your language – how men talk about mental health, Chris Stein, January 2018,