MENTAL HEALTH ∙ 5 minutes read

3 ways the pandemic has affected men’s mental health

By Joseph Lee | Medically reviewed by Dr Luke Pratsides

As the legacy of COVID-19 continues to disrupt people’s habits, we’ve taken stock of some of the factors impacting men’s mental health during 2021.

In recent years, there has been a marked shift in awareness that good physical health alone does not constitute overall good health and wellbeing. The slogan ‘no health without mental health’, was developed by the Department of Health in a study commissioned by the UK Government. 

A World Health Organisation health report revealed that by 2030 over 25% of worldwide diseases could stem from mental disorders. This prediction was made before the outbreak of the global COVID-19 pandemic, which has further raised concerns around mental health and has created new barriers for people already suffering from mental illness

Even before the pandemic, one in six UK adults met the criteria for a common mental disorder, such as anxiety or depression. Between January and March 2021, after several months of government-enforced lockdown and social isolation, 21% of UK adults experienced some form of depression

Suicide has seen some of its main risk factors coming into sharp focus during the COVID-19 pandemic. The increased amount of social isolation, mental health disease (e.g depression, anxiety, paranoid schizophrenia), unemployment, financial problems and social media are just some of the reasons leading to people taking their own lives.

Although women are more likely to be diagnosed with depression in 2021, the realities of untreated ill mental health in men can lead to fatal consequences as 75% of all suicides are male

What is good mental health?

Generally, a person with good mental health is able to think, feel and react in ways to enable them to live the life they want to. An individual’s level of mental health can be characterised by their ability to carry out key functions and activities throughout their daily life, such as:

  • learning new information
  • feeling, expressing and managing a range of emotions - both positive and negative 
  • forming and maintaining healthy relationships with others 
  • coping and managing through times of uncertainty and change

What are mental health problems?

Some conditions such as stress, depression, and anxiety, are common, but that doesn’t make them any less of a problem for those that are affected by them.

Exactly what constitutes rarer mental health problems such as schizophrenia, a condition related to psychosis, is still debated amongst mental health professionals. However, it is estimated that about 1 in every 100 people are diagnosed with schizophrenia at some point in their life.

Bipolar disorder, a condition that affects a person’s mood, moving through manic, depressive and psychotic episodes, is more than just the occasional mood swing. People suffering from bipolar disorder can experience overwhelming changes in mood that are distressing and have a huge impact on daily life. 

As natural beings, the environments humans interact with can have a prominent effect on our mental health. As we approach the autumn and winter months, a depression known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD) rises too. In the UK, serotonin-boosting vitamin D, which helps to improve mood naturally, comes from exposure to sunlight from late March to the end of September. During the winter months, alternative sources to supplement natural vitamin D intake are available such as oily fish and red meat.

Mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic and its restrictions may have eased a little, but the people of the UK are still being impacted by it as we move towards the end of 2021. 

When asked specifically about the impact of the pandemic, 65% of men said that it has adversely affected their health and wellbeing, with 32% reporting it has impacted both their physical and mental health.

Younger adults and women were more likely to experience some form of depression, with 43% of women aged 16 to 29 years experiencing depressive symptoms, compared with 26% of men of the same age. However, fewer men visit the doctors, so the number of men actually experiencing depressive symptoms may be much higher.

1. Work habits and financial stress

The pandemic has not only impacted the way we socialise but also introduced a new approach to work, with many businesses offering a work from home set-up to their employees. But as work is an activity, not a place, have the potential perks of #wfh disrupted the equilibrium of work/life balance?

Super short commutes from bed to the laptop make it easier to start work but they could also be contributing to the burnout-inducing ‘always on’ mentality of corporate institutions. Since the pandemic began, 38% of men have experienced burnout, prolonged job stress that results in exhaustion and a decrease in job performance.

The rising cost of living in the UK could also compound the pressure to remain highly performing at work, as around 1 in 3 adults who reported being unable to afford an unexpected expense of £850 experienced depressive symptoms at the start of the year.

Although house sharing with friends or a partner seems like a savvy way to spread the costs of living, financial strain appears to be most felt by those who rent their property. Nearly 20% more adults who rent their home experience some form of depression than those who own their home outright.

2. Social media and online entertainment

More time at home during lockdown restrictions has resulted in social media habits changing, with many platforms being a lifeline to remain connected to friends and family. Social media platforms and their algorithms have made mass sensations from bored, creative individuals. The unlikely West Midlands social chef (Bon Appetit!) is just one of many young men finding new outlets for more time on their hands and followers at their fingertips.

However, the spread of misinformation about the COVID-19 virus across social media has shown how reductive online social platforms can be. Where people have tried to lessen the spread of COVID-19 through sharing of social media posts and links, transmission could have been increased from the sharing of fake news, creating an ‘infodemic’. Although young adults are less at risk of severe disease from COVID-19, they are the most active online. Adults aged 18-40 interact with an average number of 5 digital platforms such as Twitter, TikTok and Instagram on a daily basis.

New studies have indicated that a higher level of social media use was associated with worse mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. Excessive exposure to constant disaster news such as death rates, hospitalisation stats and loss of social freedom can also trigger negative effects which contribute to mental health problems.

Targeted advertising on social media leading to other forms of social entertainment such as online gambling platforms may also contribute to underlying addictive behaviours. In the past four years, over 90% of adults treated for gambling addiction in the UK were men, with an average age of 35 years old. Whilst the factors leading to increased gambling consumption have been researched prior to the pandemic, studies of the mental health implications of winning (and losing) bets in social isolation without even having to go outside to the bookies remain disturbingly low.

3. Weight issues and body image

During the pandemic, the rise of home workouts swept across the UK. The nationwide success of Joe Wicks’ The Body Coach daily workouts to smaller social media communities such as Lisa’s Living Club gave people direct access to fitness within their homes.

However, the constant exposure to toned and honed physiques across social media feeds, or the pressure to lose weight was not wholly reflected in actual lockdown lifestyle. Over 40% of adults in the UK gained weight during lockdown, with disruption to routine and comfort eating being the biggest cause of weight gain.

As obesity is a risk factor for getting seriously ill with COVID, the government has continued to tackle the nation’s obesity crisis. However, authoritative pressures around weight and body image can have extremely negative consequences to individuals experiencing mental health-related eating disorders.

Eating disorders, such as binge eating disorder, make people feel compelled to overeat regularly. Putting weight loss pressures on people struggling with this condition may lead to individuals carrying out other actions linked with mental distress, such as self-harm.

Obsession with trying to control weight by not eating enough food, sometimes coupled with extreme amounts of exercise are the primary symptoms of anorexia nervosa. Losing control of food consumption then purging the body of ingested food are the primary symptoms of bulimia.

The bottom line

Although restrictions have been lifted and social gatherings are increasing, the mental toll of COVID-19 remains. A quarter of UK men are feeling anxious about a post-pandemic world but during summer 2021 the overall amount of UK adults experiencing some form of depression dropped by almost 5%

The impact and frequency of people experiencing mental health issues may seem overwhelming, however, this goes to show that mental health is a common human experience. People from all backgrounds and all walks of life can, and do, encounter mental health problems throughout their lives. Being open, reaching out and getting professional help are solid steps to ease mental health issues. 

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