Explainer Series: Men and Mental Health

SAFMH News Room

Welcome back to our explainer blog series, wherein we unpack specific mental health conditions and share stories of those with lived experience. In this edition we are focusing on men and mental health.

In South Africa, men are four times more likely to die by suicide compared to women.

Globally, compared to women, men are less likely to seek help for mental health difficulties. This is the reality we face.

Unfortunately, we live in a world that emphasises specific roles or expectations for men and women. This can lead to men being less likely to seek help. For example, in the UK, only 36% of referrals to public available talk therapies are for men.

We know that gender stereotypes about women – the idea that they should behave or look a certain way, for example – can be damaging to them. But it’s important to understand that stereotypes and expectations can also damage men.

This is what happened to Ronny Zondi. Ronny, a former professional footballer, started experiencing mental health challenges once he lost his job.

Our socialisation as men, especially (South African) black men … we are socialised to provide for our family and not being able to do all the things men are supposed to do sort of puts you in  a very difficult situation and I felt like it was challenging my manhood and now I had to depend on others for things. I had to depend on my wife for things and that did not sit well with me.”

All of these things started playing on my mind and it put me in a dark space where I started withdrawing. I pulled away from my wife, I did not open up. I did not feel good about myself. My self-esteem was not good. My self-confidence went down.”

Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, recently also opened up about his mental health challenges.

“I was almost ashamed of the things that I was going through and feeling. I also felt like I was trapped and there was nobody that I could open up to.” 

The feeling of being “trapped” is what sparked Ronny to seek help. He no longer saw a future for himself and that scared him and his wife.

I avoided a lot of questions and discussions. I was deep in my own world and my own thoughts. I did not see a way out of my situation. A whole lot of fear creeped in and I did not see a future for myself.”

Ronny’s feelings and fears are shared by many men, with research suggesting that men who can’t speak openly about their emotions are less able to recognise symptoms of mental health problems in themselves and are also less likely to reach out for support. Men may also be more likely to use potentially harmful coping methods, such as drugs or alcohol.

Fortunately for Ronny, he had a close relationship with his doctor and shared what he was going through in confidence. Ronny’s doctor suggested that he admit himself into a mental health facility. Whilst this seemed daunting at first, Ronny eventually took the leap.

On the day I was admitted I saw that there were other men there and in my mind it sort of put me at ease. I realised I am not alone.”

Diagnosed with depression, Ronny admitted that he did not know much about what that meant.

While there isn’t a different sort of ‘male depression’, some symptoms are more common in men than women. These include irritability, sudden anger, increased loss of control, risk-taking and aggression. Dr Talatala from The South African Society of Psychiatrists says that that the symptoms of depression and anxiety are not in keeping with the perception men have of masculinity.

Unfortunately, the symptoms of depression often go undiagnosed in men. This failure to recognise symptoms and other mental health problems contribute to suicide rates being significantly higher in men.

Ronny believes that men are socialised to believe that being vulnerable is a weakness.

In a News24 article, clinical psychologist and researcher Anele Siswana said that part of understanding men’s mental health is understanding toxic masculinity and its negative impact.

Toxic masculinity is the other spectrum of masculinity that has unhealthy traits that we can see in men who act in particular ways. A toxic man is a man who would abuse his power over others, who would abuse a woman, for example. But the whole essence of toxic masculinity is a social construct that draws from different aspects or lenses.”

Whilst Ronny no longer needs to see his doctor and psychologist as often as he used to, he has a regime he follows to keep himself mentally well. Aside from the work he does with former footballers, Ronny is also making an active effort to honestly share his story and let men know that there is no shame in asking for help.

I realised that it’s okay to be vulnerable as a man. It’s okay to cry and it’s OK to ask for help.”


If you suspect that you or someone you know may be struggling to cope, always seek the help of a mental health professional. If you are interested in connecting with the organisation in your province, feel free to reach out to us via our enquiries Help Desk. For those who are looking for more guidance, you can head to our website and check out our Information Library.

If you or your loved one is feeling hopeless and/or having suicidal thoughts, please call the SADAG Suicide Crisis Line on 0800 567 567 or SMS 31393. These numbers are free and counselling is available in all 11 official languages.


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