We chat with London Irish team psychologist, Michael Roberts, on better understanding mental health among men.
Interviewed by Shani Kaplan
In light of Mental Health Awareness Week, we wanted to cover a very important topic.
The topic of men’s mental health has been touched on more and more in the media in recent years, and for good reason. The mental health charity, Samaritans, reported that in 2018, statistics saw men were 3 times more likely to die by suicide than women, and in the Republic of Ireland, four times more likely.  These stats are terrifying and illustrate just how far we still have to go in creating a space where men feel comfortable to be open about their mental health.
The change is starting as men in the media grow more candid about their struggles with depression and anxiety to break the stigma; one being James Bond star, Daniel Craig, who got real about his issues with anxiety in a recent GQ article where he said, “I have suffered because it's been like, 'I can't cope. I can't deal with this.'” 
For this reason, we were lucky enough to speak with Michael Roberts, a sport and exercise psychology consultant registered with the British Psychological Society (BPS), who works principally with the rugby team, London Irish. Let’s dive into his thoughts on mental health among men - particularly in a sport that’s traditionally believed to be ‘hyper-masculine’, ergo commonly associated with notions of ‘toughness’.
Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us Michael, we really appreciate it!
Can you give us a bit of background into what you do and why you chose this career?
Sure. So I am a sport and exercise psychology consultant, currently working towards chartered status with the BPS. My work entails both applied work and research; I like the variety and it ensures you keep up to date with the latest evidence-based practice, whilst also having the opportunity to contribute towards this.
I spend the majority of my time working as the Team Psychologist at London Irish, leading the performance and well-being provision across all teams, support and coaching staff. When not with Irish, I work privately in cricket and golf, mainly, as well as in a business setting with a consultancy in the City.
I chose the career after having played cricket professionally with Hampshire CCC, meeting some brilliant psychologists along the way and enjoyed the benefits of working with them both from a performance perspective and mental health perspective. It has taken some time to retrain, having done languages and politics as my undergrad, but the journey has certainly been worth it so far!
What do you love most about your job?
Mainly I would say the variety and how each day provides a new challenge. People living and working in different environments is a very dynamic and fluid phenomena, and so each day is different and you have to go into it with as few expectations as possible. It’s also great to see people thrive in their lives and teams develop into something truly exciting - feeling like you might have played a small part in that is energising
Do you only work with the team or with women as well?
I currently work with just male athletes, but I do work with female physiotherapists and women in business settings.
In your experience, do you find that men struggle with opening up about their mental health more than women?
That’s a good question, and I think the answer might differ between different practitioners. From my experience so far and through my lens, it appears that women may be quicker to acknowledge and discuss a challenge or ‘issue’ they might be experiencing. However, I would be hesitant to say that reflects women in general, and I have worked with both men and women who have struggled and flourished.
I think one of the narratives around this topic which will hopefully become more common is that we all, independent of gender, have mental ‘health’ - and to a greater or lesser extent, mental ‘illness’ - and that we can influence how healthy we are mentally as well as work on any ‘illness’ we may have. Understanding that we can suffer from and be working on anxiety or depression AND still be mentally healthy and flourish in our lives is an important step for people to take back control.
In a male-dominated sport where “masculinity” is largely at play, how can you break that stigma of being “tough”?
We’ve done some reframing exercises with the Academy at London Irish which addresses stigmas and language within professional rugby. These have entailed looking at words, such as ‘tough’, and understanding what that means to people and how this could be seen differently. For example, what ‘tough’ means in 80 minutes of rugby is very different to what ‘tough’ might mean when facing up to and working through injury anxiety. Another nice exercise might be Personal-Disclosure Mutual Sharing (PDMS), during which individuals share challenges with their fellow players. Doing so can create an empathetic and understanding dynamic in which players begin to see things differently, and how being ‘tough’ or ‘hard’ might have a time and a place, but so does discussing being sad, anxious and upset.
In your opinion, why is psychology so important in a team sport?
How long have we got? Fundamentally, it underpins everything we do - from motor learning and acquiring skills to perform under pressure, to being in the moment and how we communicate with teammates and coaches. As we’ve touched upon, players are also people first with the same challenges everyone else has, sometimes worse! And so the better we can understand individual psychology within teams, the better chance they have of thriving as people and athletes. There is then the psychology of team cohesion and team efficacy, but that’s maybe for another time!
Do you find that players have difficulty expressing when they are having a hard time to their coach? I can imagine this is quite relevant to all workplaces where employees may find it difficult to open up to their bosses about this topic.
It’s a great question. I feel lucky to be working with London Irish as generally, the culture is open, with players and coaches sharing parts of their lives and vulnerability which might be shunned in other environments. And so although yes, players may be hesitant to have those conversations at times, it depends quite a bit on what sort of relationship coaches have with players and the culture within the particular set up.
When I have discussions with players around certain topics which the player doesn’t want to share, sometimes we’ll crack on without raising why. Other times, however, depending on what the challenge might be, we’ll address why and look at perhaps a communication style which could make that discussion with the coach more fruitful. I always try to encourage players to own this, as often the player-coach relationship makes great leaps forward after tough chats! Feeling anxious about doing certain things is perfectly normal, but it doesn’t have to govern what might be the best course of action in the long-term.
It’s great that London Irish is providing that safe space. When it comes to home life though, how do you think is the best way possible for loved ones to be there for the men in their lives? Particularly if they are not opening up about their struggles?
I’m thinking I should speak from personal experience here!! I think balancing an explicit and implicit kind of approach may be helpful. Actively trying to help by asking the right questions without intruding too much, and listening empathetically and without judgement is really important here - giving advice might seem kind but can actually have the opposite effect at times when not asked for.
Ensuring the person understands you are there for them anytime is comforting as well. At the same time, help doesn’t need to be direct. For example, small acts of kindness which make life easier, providing some space, organising some sort of social event including your partner but not necessarily for them - even if it feels like you’re not doing anything to actually help too much! Additionally, sharing one’s own vulnerability and ‘problems’ can encourage others to talk more too.
Do you have any resources you love (books, podcasts, meditations, breath work etc.) that you find is particularly helpful for your clients?
If I provide my intervention toolbox I’ll be out of work before I know it! However, we do a lot of mindfulness at London Irish which isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but the vast majority get something from it for sure. We use Headspace most of the time, which has plenty of variety and is evidence-based. Some great books which clients have got a lot from include The Happiness Trap (by Dr. Russ Harris) and The Chimp Paradox (by Dr. Steve Peters).
At the same time though, I’m a huge advocate for finding what sort of books you can lose yourself in, whether a murder mystery or an autobiography and getting stuck into these. The very act of reading is mindful, much like cooking, running or painting, and can bring peace of mind; it doesn’t need to be in the self-help section. Reading also provides connection, whether it be with a story or characters, which can feel comforting and especially helpful during the current lockdown.
Do you have any advice for our readers who may be struggling with mental health themselves?
I would certainly advise reaching out to a friend or potentially to a professional practitioner if people find they have been struggling and have felt overwhelmed for more than 2-3 consecutive weeks. However, perhaps if it’s been a bad week or a couple of rubbish days, one strategy which might be useful for some is the Triple-A technique - Acknowledgement, Acceptance and Action. This can really help people be more empathetic with themselves, whilst also focusing the mind on what can be controlled and what cannot. Doing this can ‘quieten the noise’ and provide clarity. Simply grab a piece of paper (or use the voice recorder on your phone) and:
Begin by briefly explaining your current situation to yourself - detailing as much or as little as you feel you need to;
#1 Under an ‘Acknowledgement’ heading, try to write about acknowledging your current situation for what it is, taking into account perhaps what you can control in this and what you cannot;
#2 Under an ‘Acceptance’ heading, try to write about accepting who you have been in this situation, how you’ve felt and that it’s OK to be this way at times. Accepting that you are allowed to struggle whilst accepting a willingness to see things as they have been can be a positive vehicle for change;
#3 Under an ‘Action’ heading, try to list 3-4 actions which you would like to try that you will likely benefit from. One of these might be, for example, ‘If I feel low in the morning, I will get out for a 10-minute walk’. The act of doing something good, despite not feeling like it, can begin to spark some change. For a week, it might still feel like you’re dragging yourself out of the house, but soon enough, you will start to look forward to the feelings you get from this activity.
What positive change do you hope to make in the world of mental health?
Ricky Gervais in After Life talks about living to have some sort of influence in your small part of the world. I feel I relate to this, in that I want to focus on impacting my friends, family and work network - then if this has impact further afield, great. In terms of specifics, I’d love to help everyone I work with accept and enjoy themselves, including all the ugly stuff, so they can live fulfilling and meaningful lives.
Along with this, I really want to help people understand that ‘negative’ emotions or feelings, such as anxiety, fear, sadness and uncertainty are all part of our human experience. We all have bad days and weeks and experience the inherent emotions with these. What creates a lot of pain with many people isn’t experiencing certain emotions or feelings, but their relationship with them. If I can help people have better relationships with their thoughts and emotions, help them see these as not life-defining but things that will pass and can have positive effects, I think this could have some sort of small impact in the world of mental health.
Thank you, Michael, for giving our readers some guidance on this topic.
We hope this blog helps you or your loved ones better deal with struggles with mental health. You can find out more about Michael on his website here.
If you need further help or want to talk, we highly recommend reaching out to many of the incredible hotlines available now. Find a comprehensive list of resources and contact detailshere.
Shani Kaplan is a contributing writer for Truth Naturals. She combines her knowledge gained from working within the fitness/wellness industry in Sydney and London for the last seven years as a Personal Trainer, and class instructor, with her addiction to research due to her BA in Business Marketing. Shani loves martial arts, resistance training, dance and yoga, nutrition, travel, design, photography, and art.