Guest Editorial: Give dad the gift of good mental health and well-being

By Michael J. Bailey, M.D.

Most dads understand the importance of staying healthy so they’re ready to handle the demands of fatherhood, whether it’s giving a piggy-back ride or a first driving lesson.

But total wellness is about more than just eating right, exercising and getting regular check-ups — it’s also about managing your mental and emotional health.

Unfortunately, many men are reluctant to address mental health issues because of the stigma and stereotypes surrounding these conditions.

For example, the National Institute of Mental Health reports that more than 6 million men in the U.S. will experience symptoms of depression this year. But because it is often perceived as a condition that affects primarily women, many men don’t recognize when they are experiencing symptoms of depression and therefore won’t seek out diagnosis and treatment.

Untreated mental health conditions can lead to personal, family, and financial difficulties as well as higher risk of suicide — a serious problem in our community. Suicide claims the life of about one San Diegan every day, and the suicide rate among men in California is more than triple the rate for women (17 vs. 4.9 per 100,000 populations). The good news is that mental health treatments are readily available and highly effective — but early intervention is often the key to long-term recovery.

This Father’s Day, give dad the gift of good mental health and well-being by learning to spot the signs and symptoms commonly exhibited by someone at risk, and how to help him get the support he might need:

  • Unusual aggression or irritability: While men and women experience similar symptoms, they may express them differently. For example, women with depression tend to have feelings of sadness and worthlessness, while men often become withdrawn and feel irritable, aggressive, or hostile.
  • Physical symptoms: Our culture tends to discourage men from expressing emotions or admitting they need psychological help because they are supposed to “be strong.” As a result, men are more likely to downplay emotional and psychological symptoms in favor of talking about physical symptoms such as pain, fatigue, headaches or digestive problems.
  • Sudden changes in behavior:This can include changes in appetite that result in weight loss or gain; increased alcohol or substance use; insomnia or oversleeping; loss of interest in work, family, or once-pleasurable activities; abandoning usual daily routines such as maintaining personal hygiene; and an inability to concentrate or remember details.

If you’re concerned about a friend or loved one who may be struggling with a mental health challenge, here are some tips for starting a conversation about seeking appropriate help and support:

  • Show that you are concerned in a way that is not confrontational or judgmental: Let the person know that you care about them, and you want to check in because you’re concerned about recent changes in behavior that you’ve noticed.
  • Keep questions simple: Ask how the person is doing, when they began experiencing these feelings, and how you can help provide support. At this point, it may be beneficial to ask if the person has thought about seeking help.
  • Avoid phrases that could sound dismissive or accusatory: Although you may not understand what the person is feeling, it is important to only express your unwavering support.
  • Offer reassurance and hope: Let the person know that they are not alone, and that you are there to support them in actively seeking treatment to help them feel better. Offer to help them research local treatment and support resources. The Access and Crisis Line is a good place to start.

—Michael J. Bailey, M.D., is medical director at Optum San Diego. For free, confidential support available seven days a week, 24 hours a day, call the San Diego Access and Crisis Line at 888-724-7240. Help is available in 150 languages from Master’s level and/or licensed clinicians related to suicide prevention, mental health referrals, and alcohol and drug support services.

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