Movember: Redefining success is crucial to improving mental health

Pictures: Movember
Pictures: Movember

There's a lot of talk that the time has finally come to shed our COVID lockdown skin and morph back into a fully realised version of ourselves that existed prior to March 2020.

The idea that we can just get back on the horse, let alone remember how to ride it, is one rife with problems when you start to consider the unique trajectories some have experienced over the past 18 months. The group that jumps out at me as being most at-risk of slipping through the cracks are young men, here's why.

It just takes looking at the stark statistics during the COVID pandemic, with young women consistently outperforming young men across the board from health to education to employment outcomes, to see a storm was on the horizon. Now, without the right social scaffolding to support and transition young men out of this period, we risk serious ramifications on their health and wellbeing, and indeed the social fabric of our next generation. To be clear, this is not a sob story for young men who we know have plenty of privilege and opportunity on their side. It's more an aspirational belief that rather than families, educators, health professionals, employers and the justice system continuing to bear the burden of these young men feeling unheard and misunderstood as they strive towards an unrealistic standard of manhood, we find ways to open up lines of communication. Without robust and meaningful social connections, emotion regulation skills and flexible ideas of what success actually looks like, these guys have struggled and it's taking its toll.

We all had the rug pulled out from underneath us over the past 18 months, with plans for travel, study or a career shakeup put on the backburner. Nonetheless, the expectations of success remain the same. Be as productive, get that promotion, keep up your social connections, stay fit - the list goes on. Expectedly, most of us have failed to achieve what we set out to do, but with years in a career, or a university degree under our belt, we had a frame of reference to begin to understand none of this is of our own doing and we've got the foundations to fall back on. Many young men we've spoken to at Movember have described feeling fundamentally unprepared to deal with life's challenges, frustrated and forgotten through the pandemic.

Movember's global survey of almost 4000 men aged 18-34, more than half (52 per cent) noted they've missed out on chances they'll never get back due to the pandemic. This isn't a startling finding; in fact, it's the narrative that underpins it that is cause for concern. The reason this feeling of under-achievement is uniquely problematic for this generation of men is the fact many of them feel embarrassed, uncomfortable or emasculated by the thought of sharing these fears with friends or family. This contributes to a culture of silence and sense of shame which means many young men fixate on their future, and whether they will be "a success", without having a realistic blueprint of "success". Forty-six per cent of our young men surveyed said they don't feel prepared to deal with future problems they may face, and it's because they're facing them alone.

Our investigation uncovered a connection between real-life anxieties and the binary definitions of masculine success reinforced across their lives - from sports fandoms and social media banter to gaming, education, work and dating. In short, the message many young men are internalising is if they aren't the best at something, they are a failure. It turns out surviving off a diet of success that is tied to external validation from your pay packet or promotion to marks and awards, you end up starving for purpose and meaning. The image this conjures up, is of young men walking around with internal narratives berating them for not being 'enough' in comparison to others, when those around them are carrying the same burden. The same dialogue runs rampant in too many of these young men's minds, fuelled by the feeling they are alone, that they are somehow unique in their sense of shame about not being able to live up to a standard of success. In fact, they are the norm rather than exception and it's about time they found out.

The making of complex, vulnerable, healthy and caring men must be purposeful and requires more voices speaking to the reality, the messy ups and downs, trial and error; the idea that simply trying to find your own path and figure things out is success in and of itself, as opposed to not trying. We need male role models coming forward and speaking about how they overcame challenges and how they are still grappling with them, that the work never ends, but is necessary and enriching. Success should be about the journey, not the destination. Surely the reception hero coach Ted Lasso has had on our TV screens is a clear indication young men are starving for openness, honesty, and a bit more positivity in their lives, they just don't feel they can go out and ask for it yet, so we need to bring it to them.

That's what Movember's moustache signifies. We're not only about having a hairy conversation starter on our upper lip, the moustache is all about doing things a little differently, getting itchy and pushing past the discomfort to realise what we're capable of as men. We need to make sure men know success cannot be constrained or defined, its only additive. We need to add our health, our mates, our role as fathers, and realise if we don't all succeed as men together (by looking after ourselves), then none of us do.

MensLine Australia: 1300 78 99 78

  • Dr Zac Seidler, Movember's director of mental health training.
This story Success needs to be redefined to improve mental health first appeared on The Canberra Times.