Stories

Creating Positive Environments for Men’s Health: Walk It Off

The theme of Men's Health Week 2022 is Building Healthy Environments for Men and Boys, with a focus on creating physically, mentally, and emotionally healthy environments in the home, workplace and in social settings.

It is this need for a healthy environment around men’s health that inspired Phil Dixon, in early 2022, to start the Walk It Off initiative in the Blue Mountains. Through his own, lived experiences and recognising the need for a supportive and informal setting in his local community, Dixon created a weekly program that promotes positive mental and physical health.

“I started Walk It Off after having experienced some personal challenges in the recent years. Through this experience, I felt there was a lack of opportunities (within the community) for men to talk openly about their lives in an informal setting without judgement”, Dixon said.

“I had many friends who I believed may benefit from a walk and talk group and I thought it would be a good idea to create a platform where we could collectively share our strength and hope.”

This year, Men's Health Week (13 – 19 June 2022) serves to answer two key questions: What factors in men's and boy's environments contribute to the status of male health, and how can we turn that around and create positive environments in men's and boy's lives?

It is the latter that Dixon acknowledges is critical, as his community-led project emphasises a proactive approach to men’s health. The initiative continues to grow weekly, as many others in the community recognise the benefits of connecting with others and getting physically active.

“The informal structure around Walk It Off creates an environment where men can openly share about anything going on in their lives. The nature of our walk and talk allows for open and honest conversation and we often find that the consistency of the walk supports men who need a regular check-up or are after a bit of exercise”, Dixon said.

“The casual setting around Walk It Off is great place to start, where they (men) can begin to feel supported and heard from their first attendance.”

Men’s Health Week provides an important opportunity to highlight the importance of men's health, and to promote and support the health and wellbeing of men and boys in our communities. Through a series of promotions, events and publicity around the country, Men's Health Week is designed to provoke thought and discussion about what needs to be done to improve male health.

For more information and to get involved visit www.westernsydney.edu.au/mens-health-week

Phil Dixon

Building Healthy Environments: Community – Chris Jones (Head to Health)

There are numerous settings that influence the overall health of men and boys.

One key area is community, and according to Chris Jones, Program Director at Head To Health (One Door Mental Health), creating easy access and a safe place to turn to is key to cultivating a supportive environment for boys and men to thrive.

Current research shows men in Australia have poorer health related outcomes due to engaging in services less and seeking help compared to women (Jasprizza, 2017). However, research also shows 70 per cent of men surveyed believed they would attend a service if it was a dedicated male health service (Vincent et al, 2018).

Understanding what men need, want and how best to serve them is an area Jones is passionate about and is actively working to accommodate for, after his own experience of surrounding a lack of adequate health care at 16, became a profound catalyst for his health journey and career in mental health education and program management.

“I found the GP didn't know how to ask the right questions to get things out of me, so I didn’t end up getting the support I needed at 16, then years went by, and it didn't get better, it got worse.”

At the time, Jones says mental health was still stigmatised and help seeking and talking about it felt much harder. “There was an abundance of stigma at the time, you feel like you’re the only person out there and are a social pariah. It was only when I began working in mental health and finding services that I found there was a bridge. To know there were services out there to help was a revelation and eye opener for me.”

Finding access to support became a game changer and a big part of his ‘why’ and drive behind helping men in their own mental health literacy and connection to services. “I knew from that moment this is what I want to do. There shouldn’t be people out there wondering ‘Should I or shouldn’t I put my hand up ?’or ‘is what I am going through bad enough to warrant support?’ Or worse still, down the track, thinking, “I am too far gone, I can’t be helped.” That should never be the case, everyone can be helped.”

Fuelled by a passion to create change and lower the barriers for men, boys and community, Jones is now spearheading the Head To Health, government program initiated after Covid-19 that aims to minimise barriers to access and support people of all ages.

“Head To Health was initiated by the Department of Health as a way to acknowledge that people in the pandemic would have higher rates of mental health distress and may be looking for help but not knowing where to start. They can make a quick call, get through to the intake line and 24-48 hours someone will contact you straight away. You don’t need to see a GP first, so it's a navigational thing, there is ease to how people can access the service.”

Ease is a large aspect that Jones believes can encourage men and boys to seek help or someone to chat to, but he also believes other often overlooked areas are the simple ones such as connection and community.

“Ease of access can be appealing to men as it can be a deterrent to having that uncomfortable conversation and then not being able to access services easily. But I also think there’s a reason men’s walks work. They are active, they are doing something (men like to feel proactive) and they allow time for conversation to happen.”

In his eyes, if you can be genuine and give someone space to talk, “ 9 times out of 10 you can have a conversation with men.”

While statistically, Jones says research shows women have a higher prevalence of depression and anxiety (and this may be due to putting their hands up more), he also sees a gap in professionals not having yet developed language that speaks to men.

“We need tailored experts for men and boys and to have the ability to listen. At Head To Health, we have diverse teams including males in our teams for those men who wish to speak to a male. Interestingly enough that’s not often the case though, often they are just happy to be given a hand with what they’re going through.”

For Jones, having a community of people who care and are able to talk has been invaluable in his own mental health journey.

“I am fairly comfortable talking about my mental health, but if there are times where my depression or anxiety is bad, you won’t find your talking to the same person. I forget how to put words together, my language isn't as efficient and I tend to isolate.” To combat this he’s worked hard to create a network of trust, a small community he can turn to when he needs to talk.

“I have people around me, a group I’ve developed who pick up the signs and symptoms. My wife is good at picking things up and asking ‘What’s going on, do you need to speak with someone?’ My son Flynn also now notices when Dad isn’t Dad and we have chats. I also have a couple of friends where it never feels like a hard thing. They let me take my time and allow for long periods of silence where you just sit there and sip your coffee for 10-15 minutes and that’s how you get through.”

Types of talk therapy have also been a key part of Jones’s own journey, finding psychologists and cognitive behavioural therapy invaluable over the years when he needed perspective and to re-work thought patterns.

“I used to have a lot of trouble around ‘black and white’ or ‘all or nothing’ thinking as a negative thought pattern and elements of perfectionism. It’s something that can be already a challenge to manage from the anxiety side of things but was often made harder when training people in mental health, afterwards I’d start to worry if it was good enough and beat myself up over it.’”

Since cognitive behavioural therapy, Jones says one of the biggest takeaways was finding grounding within himself. “The most helpful thing I learned was how to get a more concrete reality around things and to feel comfortable with my efforts knowing my intent, genuine care can be considered enough.”

He also credits having a caring environment of people around him at work and home to remind him keeps him on track. “If my thinking is going down a not so good road, I have people who can pick up on that and have a frank conversation with me and say, ‘Hey Chris, is this what’s kind of happening? Are you travelling okay with that?’” While not always easy to feel be asked, Jones says, therapy allowed him to see people always have best intentions at heart and that it’s never personal. “I now know it's coming from a place of concern and if I can do the same for them, why wouldn’t they do that for me?”

Outside of a community, Jones also credits other aspects of health for keeping his mood, wellbeing and mental health on track.

“Diet is a massive one, it has a real effect on my mood when I am not eating well and I also find sleep is a super logical one but overlooked. One of the first things all our clinicians look at Head To Health is sleep hygiene. Physical health, mental health and the whole gamut are affected by sleep. Get it working well and a whole bunch of stuff can work, but when it's out of whack everything else is much trickier.”

Physical exercise is also an area Jones considers one of his three fundamental pillars (family, friends and fitness).

“Yoga is something new I only tried in the last year. The feelings you get from it mental health wise feel a lot different to other exercise, you feel a lot calmer. My body also feels more stable, I walk straighter, sit straighter, which while physical things also affect how you carry yourself in life too.” He also looks to running as another form of mindful movement and effective way to get a flow state experience.

“Running is my release valve and freedom from study and work or anything causing me worry or grief. It’s fantastic for physical health but also mental health. Being I have had depression and anxiety since I was a younger guy, running has felt just as beneficial as talk therapy.”

Running is something he has also imparted to his nine-year-old son, Flynn as a strategy and tool for stress management.

“Flynn is an avid runner. When he’s stressed at school, he knows he can go for a run, and he comes back and feels much better. We will talk about how it makes him feel and he’ll say, “Dad I feel great, energised and not tired.” I find it’s a platform for life.”

Another thing he is imparting on his son from a young age is the ability to recognise stress and have coping mechanisms and ways to self-regulate.

“We talk to Flynn a lot about being vulnerable so he knows he can show his emotions. If he does get emotional, we’ve told him apart from speaking to Mum and Dad, there’s things he can do. Whether that’s running as an outlet or talking to his teachers.” “He is starting to make sense of what he’s thinking and how it impacts what he is feeling, so even the super simple basics of CBT kids understand, so now when his friends are in need, he’s already got two to three approaches he knows and says to them ‘Hey this is what I use,’ so nine year old's can do it too.”

As a father to a young boy Jones is aware how important family environment is but also community more broadly, with ‘faith’ his other pillar and a large part of his motivation to stay healthy.

“It’s one of the things that gets me up every morning (along with family and fitness) and keeps me centered. Playing roles as a father, husband, manager and member of church means people count on me and it's important for me to care about myself enough to take care of my health.”

One of the areas Jones stays connected to community and fosters a relationship in his church is by being in a ‘connect group’ where those from the church in need are supported. “Whether it's someone with a newborn or if someone is lonely or not doing well, just being able to drop around food and let them know they are being thought of really serves to help in a strong spiritual level, to serve other people before yourself.”

Balance is the place Jones aims to be now and has found the three pillars keep him steady in achieving a healthy, sustainable life.

“I’ve learned from bitter experience you can be passionate about what you do, but your family needs you as well. So you need to be healthy and give time to your family and adapt priorities as well, balance is a big one, it’s about not doing things in extremes.”

As for how to help men achieve balance and feel connected to communities, Jones believes there are a few active approaches organisations could adopt.

“Men’s walks are a simple idea but it works. People often seem reluctant as they walk beside you, but then they talk for the first time and even if it’s the usual questions like ‘Are you from down here?’ or ‘What got you to come down for a walk today?’ it evokes conversation, companionship, camaraderie and that’s what capacity building is all about.”

He believes often in the health space focus can be too much about going in depth but keeping it simple can be key, along with active physical engagement. “Whether it’s let’s go to the gym together, play basketball, use it as a conduit for conversation. This is specifically good for those at risk at suicide as it can build a rapport so later on, they can then go to professional services.”

In his experience working on funded programs within indigenous communities, he also found, just as conversations can start simply, there is also a need to recognise that men also just need the simple things in life to belong. “Working with a number of peer groups to address specific cultural approaches to suicide prevention, results came back to - men need to feel connected, loved, valued and part of a meaningful part of the community.” “While innovation is great, a lot of the time it’s the basic stuff that works when it comes to men: being listened to, feeling you’re worthwhile, that your story matters and that when you put your hand up it's going to be seen, that it's important enough to warrant support and that there is follow through. Cover all that, you’ll find most men are happy to use services.”

References

Jasprizza, E. (2017). The barriers and enablers for men in accessing community health services in Western Sydney : a qualitative research study. Western Sydney University. https://researchdirect.westernsydney.edu.au/islandora/object/uws:43187

Vincent, Drioli-Phillips, P. G., Le, J., Cusack, L., Schultz, T. J., McGee, M. A., Turnbull, D. A., & Wittert, G. A. (2018). Health behaviours of Australian men and the likelihood of attending a dedicated men’s health service. BMC Public Health, 18(1), 1078–1078. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-018-5992-6

https://digital.library.adelaide.edu.au/dspace/bitstream/2440/119322/2/hdl_119322.pdf

Chris Jones

Building Healthy Environments: Workplace – Josh Quarmby (Momentus)

There are numerous settings that influence the overall health of men and boys.

One of those is the workplace, and according to Josh Quarmby, founder of Momentus, it’s a crucial environment for promoting positive health when it comes to supporting men.

“We spend so much of our time at work. It impacts our health in so many ways and most often our major stressors are linked back to the workplace,” says Quarmby.

With the COVID-19 pandemic drastically altering workplace environments and the upheaval of change leading to daily stressors, it’s something Quarmby believes has been a real ‘eye opener' for businesses.

“Businesses have had to recognise their role in supporting the wellbeing of individuals,” says Quarmby. This is something he sees as a positive outcome, with businesses and staff beginning to work more collaboratively.

“There seems to be a more captive audience now where you can actually sit and have a discussion as teams [and] as businesses to talk about those issues and ways to address them as well”.

Research suggests a sense of collaboration is a key component of a healthy workplace, with a Deakin University study suggesting the right work environment gives people a sense of purpose, inspires them to take actions and feel part of a solution. While a culture of openness and support were also found to be central to mental wellbeing.

For Quarmby this is nothing new though. Whilst the last few years have reiterated a need for healthy workplace environments, it has long been an area of interest as a men’s health advocate.

After his own lived experience with mental health he noticed there was a gap in services that support men’s wellbeing in the workplace. Not long after, Momentus was founded.

With a passion to make a difference in workplace culture, Quarmby set about designing transformative workplace programs that empower people to achieve their potential.

“The motivation for a focus on men's health initially just came from my experience, realising there wasn’t a huge range of resources available around men's health and wondering how to navigate the challenges we face as men,” says Quarmby.

Initially it was about scouting out ways to engage men and soon began to find ways that worked.

“We set about running events and programs to start conversations and also to give people education and a skill set to address challenges they may be experiencing or that may come up along the way.”

The other key component Quarmby noticed as a gap initially was encouraging men to reach out.

“I began looking at ways to encourage help seeking behaviour with guys to reduce the amount of guys who were not reaching out for help when they needed it. That was the origins of our work then it evolved to working alongside businesses and community groups too.”

Momentus is now a holistic wellbeing organisation that covers the gamut of spaces where men intersect within the workplace across individual, teams and businesses levels.

“Working with individuals we focus on building up a skill set around self-leadership, working with teams we place focus on conversations such as the importance of social connection, compassion, teamwork, work, life balance. And then at a business level, we help them consider, ‘how are we creating an environment that's healthy for, for men, boys and women alike?'”

Now Quarmby is shifting his focus to even bigger sights focusing on community as a whole.

“I think the biggest opportunity for men and women's health to be successful in both areas is to come together, start merging and blending the two [areas] and work towards the same goals.”

Creating cohesion he believes is where change is needed. “It’s a big thing I see and is an opportunity being missed by not involving each other in conversation.”

To address the gap and overcome barriers disconnecting men and women, his advice for organisations is to create a safe environment and use accessible language.

“Look at creating an environment where men feel comfortable then speak in a way that people understand when it comes to health and wellbeing.”

Drawing on observations throughout the pandemic, Quarmby believes it's a good opportunity to highlight the power of connectedness and community.

“The last two years we've seen the importance of social connection, so creating environments and groups where men can connect no matter where (whether in or outside of work) is important as well.”

As for encouraging men to seek help or connect to health services, that’s still an area Quarmby sees as a work in progress.

“Ultimately, the greatest barrier for men reaching out is us. We think we need to be this ‘stoic individual’ that has all the answers and doesn't need to share the burden with anyone. But I think once you open that door and have a conversation, you'd be surprised how many people open up.”

References

Noy S, Patrick R, Capetola T, Henderson-Wilson C, Chin JW, LaMontagne AD (2020, December). Environmental Workplace Mental Health Promotion: Short Report. Deakin University.

https://iht.deakin.edu.au/wp-content/uploads/sites/153/2021/01/18.12.20-A4-Report-Internal-002-copy.pdf

Josh Quarmby

Josh Quarmby Interview Transcript here.

Building Healthy Environments: Education – Mark Heiss (GO Foundation)

There are numerous settings that influence the overall health of men and boys.

One key area is education, and according to Mark Heiss, Head of Scholarships  at the GO Foundation, equipping men and boys early on with the right knowledge and tools is key to creating a bright future for Indigenous Australians.

A proud Wiradjuri man, born and raised in Gadigal land in Sydney, Heiss has spent 17 years in education as a teacher in Human Movement and Health education and is passionate about helping young people build strong sustainable environments based on  education and physical activity.

Current research from the World Health Organisation shows 80 per cent of adolescents globally do not presently meet recommendations of one hour of physical activity per day and suggest it’s not only necessary to improving physical health but growing evidence suggests a positive impact on cognitive development and social skills that benefit long into adulthood.

In his role now at the GO Foundation, a scholarships organization that supports  Indigenous students, he combines his passion for education and wellbeing with his own experience of health to inspire boys to dream big and feel confident in life.

“If I have a strong sense of self and a strong sense of wellbeing, I feel I can live my best life and achieve the goals that I want to achieve. Whereas if things aren't going well, in any aspect of my health, it starts to trickle down and connect to the other parts of my life as well,” says Heiss.

Understanding the interconnected nature of health is something Heiss believes has been important to his overall life quality yet was something he had to learn the hard way.

“As a young male you sometimes think you can achieve everything and that it's weak to say ‘I can't do that right now’ or to say ‘no’. For me, saying no was a skill I had to learn by pausing, thinking and asking myself, ‘What is my capacity? What is going to begin to adversely affect me?

Learning to say no and evaluate has been a large part of Heiss’s ability to stay centered, but he also credits time out and talking as other tools that have helped him create a sustainable healthy life.

“Ienjoy talking problems through with others, so I will absolutely have a conversation with a trusted person if that's the way to go – it's something I feel men have got better at doing over time.”

He also finds breathing and mindfulness are great gateways to reconnecting. “It might be a walk, yoga, a run, just taking a bit of time out for breathing. I find you've got to give yourself time to sort of go, “Okay, what's going on with my health?”

Through taking a pause, Heiss has found it allows opportunity for introspection and adjustments. “I will ask, ‘Am I putting too much stress on myself?’ ‘Am I eating the right food?’ It’s about taking time out when things are getting tough to reassess.”

When it comes to having a chat, while Heiss is a ‘talker’ he believes it’s important to have the right environment and people around you to feel comfortable to confide in.

“I've got a really good bunch of friends that have a huge impact on my health because they are the trusted people I can always go back to.”

Outside the inner circle of friends, sport has also been a safety net for Heiss and is an area he is passionate about advocating for young men and boys.

“I've played a lot of team sports and my teammates and coaches have also always been really good. I’ve found it has always allowed me the opportunity to explore my vices and open up and have a bit of yarn about what's going on.”

Through having teammates around him to be accountable to, Heiss finds he builds a sense of camaraderie whereby you can speak up about how you feel.

“I’ll say to my teammates where I might be at, whether it’s, ‘I'm a bit off tonight or today,’ and give them a heads up that I might not be great at training or the greatest session or whatever.”

A sense of a safe space and trust, be it in sport or another environment is something Heiss sees as vitally important for boys and men’s overall wellbeing.

“I think as men, we are still learning to trust medical practitioners and to say, ‘you know what, things are tough and it's not easy to ‘be the man’ all the time.”

Establishing that trust is something he believes requires the ability to listen and to create an environment that allows men to lean in.


“You've got to be able to take a step back and when having that conversation with someone you trust, be it a friendship or a relationship, have their backs and say they've experienced it too. Having another fella say, ‘I can see where you're coming from’ or ‘Yeah that shit’s going on for me as well,’ is important in the intermediary as a first port of call.”

When it comes to fostering these relationships for men and boys he believes education is fundamental to facilitating growth, whether it’s in relationships, health or knowledge.

“Education teaches critical thinking and decision-making skills, so for our men and young people it can help them make smart choices in their health and at least diagnose or equip them with acknowledging when health is off kilter, be it social, mental, emotional, physical, whatever it might be.”

By taking people on a journey, Heiss says it allows men and boys to move from “ignorance to enlightenment” and it's a large part of why he became an educator and respects teachers' role.

“Teachers have a huge responsibility and it’s something you take on because you want to help young people. But working with kids is far more than delivering curriculum, it's about relationships.”

Teachers he believes hold the real keys to young peoples’ hearts and learning, be it decision making skills, communication or tools for managing health. “While teachers have full loads, if you're a teacher, then you are part of the solution that helps young people in their quest for becoming their best selves.”

Supporting this great responsibility is where GO comes in. “We empower through education, encouraging young people to stay in school and establish what their goals are to essentially keep their education fire stoked and burning.”

Another aspect they work on is connecting young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids to their culture by helping kids engage and feel comfortable in engaging with their culture.

“Our program works to ensure kids are experiencing  culture so they have a stronger sense of self and a connection to the person next to them. We understand that this  helps young people  connect to peers and strengthens their ability of knowing who they are  and that they belong.”

Connection to culture and land is something Heiss believes without a doubt is crucial for Aboriginal boys and men.

“Connection to Country is very important, it is a major building block of identity. The devastation of colonisation in Australia has endangered  those bonds, and  we're still dealing with trauma. Young people who are Aboriginal are continually looking to reconnect and, work through the trauma to strengthen identity and build a healthy life.

As for how to help? Heiss believes it’s down to reframing how to encourage men and boys to seek help.

“It would be easy to suggest to someone else.‘you should go and see the GP’, but I think reframing the conversation to a coaching conversation  can be helpful. Asking ‘how can we resolve this? Is there someone better qualified to chat through this with?’ is very powerful. It puts the decision making back in the hands of the person seeking help.  I am a firm believer in coaching people towards finding answers, rather than telling them.”

Reference

https://www.who.int/news/item/22-11-2019-new-who-led-study-says-majority-of-adolescents-worldwide-are-not-sufficiently-physically-active-putting-their-current-and-future-health-at-risk

Mark Heiss

Mark Heiss Interview Transcript here.
Men’s Health Week 2022: Building healthy environments for men and boys.

Community – Men's Health Week 2022: Building healthy environments for men and boys.

Sport – Men's Health Week 2022: Building healthy environments for men and boys.

Health – Men's Health Week 2022: Building healthy environments for men and boys.

Education – Men's Health Week 2022: Building healthy environments for men and boys.

Family – Men's Health Week 2022: Building healthy environments for men and boys.