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.”
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