Advance Disability: Men’s Health Week

Everybody needs an outlet sometimes and while it’s often considered more socially acceptable for women to speak about their feelings and struggles, men don’t always feel the same freedom. In light of Men’s Health Week, we’re focusing on men’s matters and the challenges facing men in general and specifically, men with disabilities.

We’ll look at some stats, at the stigmas and stereotypes that affect daily life, at ways men with disabilities can help themselves, how their community can support them and at some inspirational men living proudly with disabilities.

So, let’s dive in.

Ideas of men

The archaic ideas of what a man is are widespread and well-known – strong, tough, the breadwinner, the alpha, etc. While a lot of that is changing, there’s still a long way to go to see men for what they are – human beings with the full spectrum of emotions and challenges that go with it.

David Pearce is a men’s mental health coordinator who hosts online events to pick apart the cultural barriers that stand in the way of men speaking about their mental health. He notes, “Regardless of whether a man has a disability or not, men experience a unique set of cultural barriers that present themselves as socially acceptable behaviours, which stand in the way of better well-being and, by extension, overall community well-being.”

These barriers can come in the form of feeling unable or embarrassed to seek help, feeling like they can’t consult with their partners/family to share decision-making, and being unable to voice their feelings. To do any of these things has in the past been considered ‘unmasculine’.

What this silencing of men that compels them to struggle alone leads to is a higher suicide rate and a higher prevalence of mental illness. In Australia alone, the suicide rate of men is three times that of women.

Men with a disability

The outdated ideas of masculinity have an even stronger effect on men with disabilities. Let’s look at some examples.

‘Men must be strong and tough and protect their family.’ For a man in a wheelchair or with a physical disability, this skewed perception of masculinity can make them feel inadequate and what comes with that is a feeling of shame.

‘Men must be the breadwinner.’ The statistics show that men with disabilities have a much higher rate of unemployment than men without disabilities. It’s easy to see how this stereotype can have a big impact on their psychology.

‘Men don’t ask for help.’ For a man or anyone with a disability, being able to ask for help can be an essential tool for living a full life. So much so that the entire NDIS program was created to provide the assistance needed for people with disabilities to flourish.

The statistics

What this all leads to are some rather worrying statistics. We include these not to spread negativity, but because it’s important to bring these things to the light if we hope to change the narrative.

A study published in the Journal of Public Health by the Centre of Research Excellence in Disability and Health in 2018 reported that men with a disability had 1.5 times greater odds of having suicidal thoughts. This in itself was around the same rate as the tendency towards suicidal thoughts as a result of unemployment. But the results further showed that ‘unemployment and poor mental health were more common among men with a disability than those who did not report a disability’, which compounds the dangers for men living with disabilities.

Men with disability also face higher rates of abuse, which will have a negative impact on their mental health. In Australia, men with disability are 2.5 times more likely to experience sexual violence and stalking or harassment than men without a disability, and 1.25 times more likely to experience physical violence.

Moving forward

This is a heavy topic, but the good thing is that ideas are changing. If you’re a man living with a disability, you can be part of the shift towards healthier ideas of masculinity and self.

Pearce notes, “It takes courage, leadership, and strength to buck this trend and to ask for help when it is needed. And for the betterment of the rest of the community, it is so important that we all do so. We need role models.”

A good way to do it is to start small. Reach out to one person you trust and share with them what you’re struggling with. As you gain confidence, you can widen this circle.

You can then find a community. There are many online groups that men can join, as well as podcasts and talk shows they can watch to see and hear other men opening up about mental health or abuse and challenging toxic ideas of masculinity. One such YouTube show is Pearce’s Hear For Each Other, where Australian men get together to shine a light on areas that are usually kept in shadow.

Men with a disability who’ve broken the mould

When it comes to redefining what it is to be a successful and strong man and opening up about mistreatment, depression and asking for help, these men have defied stereotypes and expectations to be leaders in their fields.

Stephen Hawking

He was a brilliant theoretical physicist who studied the origins and structure of the universe and in particular, black holes and the Big Bang. Hawking was diagnosed with ALS when he was 21 and although he was given just two years to live, he ended up living to 76 years old.

He struggled with his own bouts of depression, especially in the time after diagnosis. Many years later during a lecture he gave at the Royal Institute of London, he compared depression to black holes, noting, “The message of this lecture is that black holes ain’t as black as they’re painted. They aren’t the eternal prisons they were once thought…So, if you feel you are in a black hole, don’t give up; there’s a way out.”

He also emphasised the importance of asking for help, noting, “I find that people in general are very ready to help, but you should encourage them to feel that their efforts to aid you are worthwhile by doing as well as you possibly can.”

RJ Mitte

You may know Mitte from his role as Walter Jr. in Breaking Bad. Mitte has cerebral palsy and is an activist for people with disability.

He has spoken openly about being bullied as a child, noting “Cerebral palsy and mental health go hand in hand, because when you have a physical disability you’re twice as likely to be bullied.”

He works in his community outreach and philanthropic efforts, as well as in his film and TV roles, to eradicate stigma and be honest and open about his disability, his struggles, and his triumphs. His openness about himself encourages others to open up and be ‘neurological proud’ too.

Dylan Alcott

He’s a three-time Paralympian gold medalist and this year, became the first person with a disability to become Australian of the Year.

Alcott was born with a tumour around his spine, which left him in paralysed from a few weeks old.

During his acceptance speech for his award, he admitted in his youth to hating himself and his disability. The things that got him through were turning to his family and friends for love, encouragement, and support, and seeing other people like him who were living full and happy lives alongside their disabilities.

He now advocates for changing perceptions and considers his disability the best thing that ever happened to him.

If you’re supporting a man with a disability, you can take the first step by checking in regularly, not only about his practical needs but also about his mental health and emotional well-being.

If you need extra supports, please contact us for more information.

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