Evidence
Alert

Recommendations from male students help shape mental health support for this high-risk group

Male university students suggested approaches that would encourage them to seek help with their mental health. Examples include providing male-only spaces, and using positive masculine narratives of help-seeking. Terms other than ‘mental health’ could be used to describe group sessions.

The study’s recommendations are important and relevant because men are less likely to ask for help than women. Young men are at especially high risk of mental health problems and suicide.

These findings could be used to encourage male students to seek help. This may reduce the number of young men seriously affected by mental health problems.

What’s the issue?

Young men aged 18 to 25 are most at risk of developing disorders such as schizophrenia, anxiety, and depression. About two in three (69%) students who die by suicide in UK universities are male. The number of students reporting a mental health condition is rising.

Compared to women, men are less positive about counselling and other psychological services. They are also less likely to seek help.

Universities are being asked to improve the mental health support they offer, but there is little evidence about how best to do this. This study suggests some ways of encouraging male students to seek help.

What’s new?

Researchers recruited 24 male university students from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. Three focus group sessions provided a supportive environment and the opportunity for deeper discussion.

The groups explored the barriers preventing young men from seeking help. Researchers asked how these barriers could be overcome. They also asked about what potential interventions should look like and how they could be publicised.

Analysis of the data revealed five recommendations:

  • to protect male vulnerability (e.g. by providing social support and a male-only space)
  • to provide positive narratives of help-seeking (e.g. by using male role models)
  • to offer brief sessions as well as informal options
  • to explain to male students when and how to seek help (e.g. by improving routes to care and increasing knowledge of symptoms)
  • to engage with male students sensitively (e.g. not labelling sessions as ‘mental health’ interventions, promoting them through student-led or university societies, and providing informal sessions).

Why is this important?

Many of the findings support existing research but some are new, like some students preferring informal help. Many men feel they should adhere to stereotypes of masculinity and they view seeking help as a sign of weakness.

Mental health support teams at universities could use the recommendations to design interventions. More engaging, male-sensitive interventions may result in more male students seeking help.

What’s next?

This study was part of a larger project to develop male-sensitive interventions. Findings from a systematic review of men’s help-seeking have already been used by the researchers to design and test mental health interventions for male students. They have also developed a framework for designing future interventions.

The next step is for the research team to carry out larger studies on the most promising approaches. They plan to publish the results soon.

You may be interested to read

The full paper: Sagar-Ouriaghli I, and others. Engaging male students with mental health support: a qualitative focus group study. BMC Public Health. 2020;20:1159.

The Men’s Sheds Association is a successful example of an informal mental health intervention aimed at men.

This video explores men's views of mental health and how they deal with it.

Research paper by the same group, detailing their framework for developing mental health interventions for male students: Sagar-Ouriaghli I, and others. Improving Mental Health Help-Seeking Behaviours for Male Students: A Framework for Developing a Complex Intervention. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health. 2020;17:4965-4990.

Funding

This research was supported by the NIHR Biomedical Research Centre at South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust and King’s College London.

Commentaries

Study author

Existing research often highlights the obstacles male students face, without providing solutions or suggestions. It was essential to have more tangible, constructive advice from male students themselves.

This work has also provided a more positive outlook on how to engage men. We need to reframe seeking help as a sign of courage and independence. It isn’t that male students are ‘hard-to-reach’. Rather, service providers aren’t developing suitable services for men and male students.

A lot of our recommendations don’t align well with current mental health services. Male students need trust, good rapport, and confidentiality to engage with mental health services. Our results suggest it is possible that informal interventions may engage more students who may not always come forward for help.

I hope our work helps other researchers and mental healthcare providers engage with male students. I hope it helps reduce the gender disparity seen in help-seeking and suicide rates.

Emma Godfrey, Senior Lecturer in Health Psychology, King’s College London

Researcher

Despite the small sample size of just 24 students, this is well-reported research. It will have an impact on developing mental health interventions for male students.

The findings could help tailor interventions and change service provision. University counselling services could use the recommendations to promote help-seeking behaviour in young men. They could also increase awareness of the problem amongst teaching staff.

I’d like to see these findings presented at relevant conferences to increase awareness amongst students and researchers.

Elena Sheldon, Research Assistant, School of Health and Related Research, University of Sheffield

 

Conflict of Interest

None declared.