older man comforted by doctor

Breaking down the psychosocial barriers that prevent men from seeking help when they feel unwell is not the sort of thing that can be achieved overnight.

The socialisation of males to be independent and persevere during adversity, and the fostering of a culture that rewards and reinforces these characteristics over generations will require us all, as a society, to do our part to help men take better care of themselves.

As a health professional, there are simple things you can do to make it easier for men to access care. Knowing how to communicate effectively with men, tailoring clinical service to men’s preferences, greater flexibility with care provision, out-of-hour services and targeted men’s health outreach services are practical steps that may improve men’s utilisation of healthcare services[1]. These actions might remove some of the practical barriers to men seeking help, but what about the psychosocial ones?


The role of self-compassion

Helping men improve their self-compassion might be one way to help them overcome psychosocial barriers to seeking help with their health.

Self-compassion is the ability to show oneself understanding and kindness when faced with a challenge. It leads to a feeling of connection with others when confronted with adversity, and a mindful approach to difficulty[2].

The conflict between men’s gender roles and help-seeking can create self-stigma and a reluctance to expose vulnerability, especially when it comes to the need to seek psychological help[3]. However, men with higher self-compassion have less help-seeking self-stigma and disclosure risk than men with low self-compassion, even if they have a high level of conformity to masculine norms3.

High levels of self-compassion can reduce the self-stigma of seeking help, even in men who have high levels of gender role conflict resulting from rigid adherence to restrictive masculine norms2.

Self-compassion can be taught, and increasing it need not focus on traditional masculine norms3. Some ways of fostering self-compassion may actually appeal to men’s adherence to traditional masculinities, such as promoting self-improvement and functioning at a high level2.

There are ways of appealing to masculine norms that enforce men’s roles as protectors: encouraging them to think about an occasion when they provided support to someone else can help men to improve their self-compassion3.

There’s no harm in all of us being a little kinder to ourselves. There are guided practices and exercises designed to foster self-compassion, available online[4], that you might want to try yourself before recommending them to patients.

A/Prof Tim Moss
A/Prof Tim Moss

Associate Professor Tim Moss has PhD in physiology and more than 20 years’ experience as a biomedical research scientist. Tim stepped away from his successful academic career at the end of 2019, to apply his skills in turning complicated scientific and medical knowledge into information that all people can use to improve their health and wellbeing. Tim has written for crikey.com and Scientific American’s Observations blog, which is far more interesting than his authorship of over 150 academic publications. He has studied science communication at the Alan Alda Centre for Communicating Science in New York, and at the Department of Biological Engineering Communication Lab at MIT in Boston.


[1] World Health Organization. Regional Office for Europe, ‎2018‎. The health and well-being of men in the WHO European Region: better health through a gender approach. World Health Organization. Regional Office for Europe

[2] Booth et al., 2019. Masculine gender role stress and self-stigma of seeking help: the moderating roles of self-compassion and self-coldness.

[3] Heath et al., 2017. Masculinity and barriers to seeking counselling: the buffering role of self-compassion. Journal of Counselling Psychology

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