Caring is about sharing: Tom Conlon's support group encourages men to open about their mental health

LISTEN UP: Tom Conlon, psychoanalyst, is setting up The Men’s Positive Living Group in Midleton, Co Cork. Picture: Dan Linehan

Marjorie Brennan meets psychotherapist Tom Conlon, who is establishing a men’s support group to help them to talk to one another and share stories

WHEN it comes to mental health issues, “it’s good to talk” is a phrase that we hear with increasing frequency. However, sharing our mental health difficulties isn’t always easy, particularly for men, who have long been conditioned by society to suppress their emotions.

Psychoanalytic psychotherapist Tom Conlon is attempting to tackle this reluctance with the establishment of a Men’s Positive Living Group, providing an opportunity for men to meet up and share their stories in a relaxed and supportive environment.

“I’ve seen men get together and talk about football in the pub but they struggle when it comes to talking about themselves,” he says.

“I have noticed the ease with which women are able to meet up and talk to each other and I thought there would be real value in men getting together on a regular basis to talk about the things that are concerning them. There’s a lot of support in the community for this — the men’s sheds have done a fantastic job and I’m trying to reach out to people who might find it difficult, or expensive, to come to counselling.”

Conlon, who is based in Midleton, Co Cork, says many of the men he deals with in a clinical context do not even realise they have issues with anxiety until they start to get physical symptoms.

“A lot of the work I get is from GPs, or psychiatric referrals. Frequently, the men I see will have presented with physical symptoms, such as cardiac discomfort or shortness of breath but

the there’s nothing organically wrong with them. I help them think about what’s going on in their life.”

Conlon is also an organisational consultant and has extensive experience in change management. He says many men are struggling with anxiety as a result of a changing workplace environment. He cites recent research (Cheng and McCarthy, 2018) which distinguishes between ‘dispositional’ anxiety, for example, someone who already experiences high levels of general anxiety, and ‘situational’ anxiety, which arises in specific job tasks, such as job appraisals or public speaking.

“Strategies for managing anxiety in the workplace need to factor in this difference,” he says. “I did a presentation recently to occupational health nurses and one of the things they said was that they had managers who had been very resilient, with many years of experience, and next thing they’re out sick. That’s a concern for organisations — they need to ask why is this occurring

now?”

A recent ESRI report on stress in the workplace found that the level of job stress in Ireland has doubled in the last five years while in a VHI report on mental health in the corporate workplace carried out earlier this year, one in five of those surveyed had missed work in the past year due to stress, anxiety or depression. And despite the fact that mental health is now more openly spoken about, 50% of those surveyed said they felt they must hide the stress they feel at work to maintain their career prospects.

The decline of manufacturing and move to a service economy means the current jobs market is driven by flexible contracts and the attendant lack of security. This can make the workplace a precarious and fearful place to be. Underlying all of this is the often crippling mental effect of uncertainty, says Conlon.

“As one client of mine described it, ‘it’s that thing around the corner, I don’t know what it is’, that’s a part of it.”

Conlon also acknowledges that a certain amount of stress and friction is to be expected in the workplace — and life in general.

“There’s no good work done in society without some anxiety, it’s part and parcel of human nature and without it we atrophy.”

However, employers and organisations have a role to play in providing a supportive framework for their workforce. As Conlon quotes: “Being resilient in one’s work depends on a lively sense that help is at hand.”

He says many men come to him looking for a quick solution to their issues but it is not a process that can be hurried along.

“People come and say they want some counselling, but they actually want a quick fix. The reality is that if you want to get at the root causes, which is what I do, that takes time.”

Conlon is holding an open night next week for anyone interested in joining the group, and says he hopes men can see the benefits of speaking to others about their worries.

“I am amazed by the benefit people get from the opportunity to speak about things. I don’t know where people get reflective listening any more, maybe from bar staff and taxi drivers — I often tell them they’re doing my job better than I could,” he laughs.

“If you ask a psychoanalyst what he or she does, they’ll say, ‘I listen’. I regard that as a commodity in scarce supply. What people hear from their own mouths makes a difference.”

The Men’s Positive Living Group will commence on Friday evenings in February. Open evening on Friday, Jan 18, 7.30-9pm, Midleton Holistic Centre, 2 Main Street, Midleton, Co Cork. Contact tom@tomconlon.ie or 086-3688824 to book your place; tomconlon.ie

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