As lockdown stress increases, Fabian Devlin explains how men can improve their mental health

Covid-19 is one of the biggest threats to humans the world has seen for many years. Add to this the daily reports of the economy sliding into a recession and the global issue of climate change, it’s little wonder the nation’s anxiety levels are rocketing. A survey last week by the Harvey Nash Group found that the mental health of one in three workers has deteriorated during the pandemic.

I think men are particularly vulnerable to mental heath issues caused by work in these uncertain times for two main reasons: first, we still consider ourselves to be the main breadwinner, whether this is actually the case or not, and if we fail to provide for our family then we have failed in our fundamental role as a man. This is, of course, an outdated concept but I believe it still sits deep within our male psyche.

The second reason is that, generally, men just don’t open up and talk about their problems in the way that women do. We tend to keep our negative, self-destructive thoughts locked inside our heads, festering and corroding our self-confidence until it reaches crisis point.

A recent study, from the Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCP), found that men aged 18-25 are reported to have been badly affected by mental health for the first time during lockdown, with the RCP warning of “a tsunami of mental illness” to come. Furthermore, research from almost 2,000 Samaritans volunteers who have been taking calls throughout lockdown, have found middle-aged men are the group most at risk of suicidal feelings.

Twelve years ago, I suffered from work-related stress and anxiety which led to depression and serious thoughts of taking my own life. Work has always been a real trigger for me and I struggle with what I’ve now learned is called ‘imposter syndrome’, where I feel like a fraud who’s going to be found out at any moment. Despite 19 years’ experience in my career, I live in fear that someone will call me out and say: “This guy is absolutely hopeless at his job. You are so busted!”.

Like many people, I find that my identity and self-esteem are inextricably linked to my work. So, when things are going well with my job I feel like a success; but when they’re not I’m a failure, and not just as a worker, but as a person too. This is not only unhelpful, it’s dangerous. Suicide remains the single biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK and as the CEO of mental health charity CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably), Simon Gunning said recently: “If you’re a young man in Britain, the most likely thing to kill you, is you.”

This is why I decided to co-write a men’s mental health book Big Boys Don’t Cry?, with an old school friend Patrick Addis, encouraging men to open up, rather than ‘man up’. We spoke to 60 men from a wide range of backgrounds – lawyers, businessmen, postmen and professional sportsmen – who shared their stories and battles with mental illness.

The main lesson we drew from them is that no one – absolutely no one – is immune from mental health challenges. It doesn’t matter what background you come from, how wealthy you are, what job you do, what age you are, mental illness simply does not discriminate. It welcomes us all.

The good news is that you can learn many tools and techniques to help manage your mental health and not only survive, but thrive in this uncertain world. Here are four things that are currently helping me during lockdown:

You are not your job

The key is to try and extricate yourself from this precarious position and to understand that you are not your job. During lockdown, I’ve learned to place less emphasis on my work and to focus more on other areas of my life, such as my family and friends. I am poorer financially than ever, yet much richer in time and in my personal relationships. In fact, I’m feeling physically and mentally healthier than I have in a very long time.

Give your day structure

A good way to feel more in control is to create yourself a daily timetable. I take an A4 piece of paper, divide it into three columns – ‘Morning’, ‘Afternoon’ and ‘Evening’ – add in rows of times in each column and Blu-Tack on work, leisure and household activities. This works for me as it’s flexible and I can move around items as and when I need to.

It also helps me schedule in activities like reading or going for a walk to avoid being stuck in front of my laptop all day. I also find it’s very useful to prioritise just three key things – no more – that you want to do in a day. You feel a real sense of satisfaction when you tick all three of them off before you go to sleep that night.

Keep a mood diary

This is a really simple way to track how you’re feeling from day to day, and also to help identify key activities that help lift your mood and others that lower it. Buy a pocket-size, week to view diary and check in with how you’re feeling several times throughout the day. Score your mood out of 10 and write a brief note on the reason for your number; for example, ‘3/10 – too many Zoom calls’ or ‘8/10 – went for a run in the park’.

Write down your average score each day and then do the same at the end of the week. You’ll very soon get a real sense of what impacts your mood positively and negatively. It also helps when you need to communicate how you’re feeling to partners, family members or your doctor. This week I got a brilliant Fitbit-style, wearable device called Moodbeam which helps track your mood by clicking on either a positive or negative button on your wrist, which then links directly to an app on your phone, keeping track of your mood digitally.

Try meditation

By far the most useful tool I’ve learned to help look after my mental health over the past few years. I set aside 20 minutes each morning to practice sitting alone with my thoughts and bringing my attention back to my breath, whenever it pulls me into ruminating about the past or worrying about the future. You don’t need any fancy equipment or to sit for hours in a complicated lotus position, even five minutes sitting on a chair or lying on a bed paying attention to your thoughts will help you feel much more balanced and at ease. I recommend Mark Williams’ guided meditations, available on Spotify.

These are just a few weapons you can add to your wellbeing armoury along with the basics of getting enough sleep, eating healthily and doing exercise. But the key thing is to find out what works for you, to keep all your options open and to open up, and not ‘man up’.

Fabian Devlin is the co-author of Big Boys Don’t Cry? e-book, available to buy here and on Amazon. Ten per cent of proceeds from the book will be donated to mental health charities CALM and Sport in Mind.