This is our contribution to helping male mental health

A few years ago, a very dear friend of mine died by suicide. I remember meeting her just five days earlier. She looked as beautiful as ever that day but she lamented she was in so much pain and doctors could not identify its cause. A few days later, she decided to end her life. I still ask myself what could I have done better to save her? The answer is nothing.

But I couldn’t remain impassive in the face of this trauma. While I am not a qualified professional in the field of mental health, I, like too many of us, have had my fair share of issues and, through my own personal experience and as a philanthropist working with vulnerable women and children, I have learnt that we cannot compromise on our mental well-being.

The celebrated British author Matt Haig, who has publicly spoken of his depression and suicide attempt, recently wrote: “Suicide is not selfish. Suicide is, normally, death caused by the illness of depression. A final collapse under unbearable weight. Suicide is a tragedy. If you have never been close to that edge, try not to judge what you can’t understand. Stigma doesn’t help prevention.”

We are experiencing a post-pandemic pandemic of mental health issues, a maelstrom of fragility and vulnerability exacerbated by anxiety and stress. At Fidem Foundation, we have seen this first-hand. While the foundation was not originally intended to address mental health issues, most of our service users require professional psychological support in tandem with practical assistance to put their lives in order.

While we support them from a practical side by giving them access to life-changing education that could help them secure a job, we also ensure that their mental well-being is nurtured by pairing them with our professional partners.

When the COVID pandemic upended our lives, Fidem set up the We Connect online community to bring together people who felt they needed to prioritise their well-being. A few days into the lockdown, we organised a free helpline manned by a small group of volunteers supported by medical professionals to give people who felt lonely and vulnerable during those dark, confusing days the opportunity to reach out to a friendly voice for reassurance. What we never expected was the sheer volume of calls we started receiving, hundreds every day. Two of those callers were on the brink of suicide.

COVID may be a distant memory now but those feelings of anxiety, loneliness, helplessness, are still gnawing at our mental well-being with a devastating ripple effect on our relationships and our work performance. Mental health issues affect us all, whether directly or indirectly, and do not discriminate between rich and poor, age, sexual orientation, ethnicity, beliefs or otherwise. The government estimates that at least half the population will be affected by a mental disorder at some point in their lifetime.

What progress has Malta made on its Mental Health Strategy 2020-2030?
The World Health Organisation defines mental health as “a valued source of human capital” contributing to “individual and population health, happiness and welfare”, adding that “unless we make serious commitments to scale up investment in mental health right now, the health, social and economic consequences will be far-reaching”.  Mental health is a human right. What progress has Malta made on its Mental Health Strategy 2020-2030? If even psychologists are reporting feeling burnt out, what hope for the rest of us?

We are talking about mental health issues more openly but that does not mean it is becoming any easier for people to admit they need help. It takes courage and humility to admit you need help and a further dose to ask for it. I asked a friend what prevented him from reaching out for help when he was struggling with mental health. He blamed it on “the male psyche of not showing emotion or weakness, fear of ridicule or fear of breaking down in front of others who would maybe think less of me”.

Sometimes we don’t know where to look for help. Statistics indicate that 80 per cent of deaths by suicide in Malta occur in men. And this fact set us thinking. While Fidem was established primarily to help women, there was no equivalent facility specifically aimed at men.

Creating the right environment to facilitate and resolve mental health issues from a practical perspective is a priority. “Men internalise it all,” another male friend told me. And that is part of the problem. But he went on to point out that “knowing there is support can be as strong as actually receiving the support. Just knowing it’s there can make a huge difference to one’s mental state.”

There is a growing trend internationally for men-only safe spaces being created specifically to encourage men to come forward and seek help in a practical solution-based community that does not judge but listens, reassures, supports and accompanies them on their journey of self-improvement. We want to create such a space here in Malta.

Opinion: Suicide is an overwhelmingly male issue. Why does this crisis go unnoticed?
Next month, Fidem will be launching a new initiative by men for men. Isma ?abib will offer free, organic meetings for men once a month in different localities across Malta.

The meetings will be based on the principles of diversity, inclusivity, accessibility and equitability, and will have no political, religious or other affiliation.

Isma ?abib aims to be a practical, problem-solving approach to mental health, creating the right environment for men to seek and find identification with other like-minded men, to help them overcome their issues with the community’s support.

The community will provide the resources and environment; participants just need to have the willingness and open-mindedness to start tackling the issue. A similar initiative will also be set up for women in the coming months.

This is our small contribution to the mental health pandemic. Our experience has taught us that a pragmatic approach goes a long way to reach some form of a solution. We are doing our part as a privately funded NGO, from our own resources and network of professionals who are generously giving their time for free.

It is high time the government does its part as well, to implement its national mental health strategy paper and put words into action, without any further delay.

This is our contribution to helping male mental health