Masculinity & Male Mental Health
Independence. Assertiveness. Decisiveness. These are just three of many traits that embody traditional masculinity. Although these traits have historically served us men well, they do have some modern day drawbacks. In the domain of general health, shouldering the load and assuming the need to ‘man up’ and be strong can be linked to a reluctance to seek and accept medical assistance. This makes the identification and treatment of medical issues sometimes more difficult in comparison to women, resulting in the potential for injuries and illnesses to go unchecked (and untreated) for long periods. In some cases, these issues only receive medical attention when they evolve into something much more serious.
Mental health is no different. In most cases, women are more expressive with their emotions than men and are much more eager to seek and engage with health services when complications arise. On the other hand, men tend to reveal and communicate their emotions less frequently and can be hesitant to enter therapeutic relationships with practitioners. Men can be quick to default to expressions of anger, while feelings of sadness and anxiety can fester surreptitiously. However, it is important to note that anger is a secondary emotion and manifests from—or supplants—other emotions, typically fear or sadness. In other words, anger can be a response to feelings of sadness and anxiety. As discussed in Noticing the Signs, this makes outbursts of anger and irritability a telling sign of potentially declining mental health in men.
Being a little less in tune with our emotional side than our female counterparts, it can be easy to overlook the connection that anger has with sadness and fear, despite this connection providing significant value to men that seek help for their anger issues. Without guidance in making this connection, the true source of anger may never be identified and properly dealt with, and solo attempts at managing this anger are likely to be met with feelings of frustration, hopelessness or incompetence.
Assistance in realising this connection is just one example of what a therapeutic relationship has to offer men in the pursuit of a healthier state of mind. Unfortunately, these services are not commonly utilised by men, with many confronting their demons on their own and out of the eye of people who want the best for them. The underrepresentation of men in mental health support services is emblematic of the lack of harmony that exists between masculinity and self-care.
From the perspective of a bystander, a man’s choice, subconscious or not, to bottle up his emotions, could perhaps seem strange. “Wouldn’t it be easier to deal with mental ill-health if you just talked about it?” The presumption being made is that the communication of problems, especially relating to mental ill-health, is less than daunting. But men don’t suffer in silence because it’s easy, rather the concept of divulging their struggles requires a level of vulnerability and humility that the societal perception of masculinity won’t accommodate. Their preference of living in a state of solitary stoicism may be the best testament to how difficult the communication of mental health issues can be for men.
A guiding philosophy that underpins this view is one that categorises emotional wellbeing as a zero sum game: “If I’m unhappy, the people around me can (or will) be happy.” In the mind of most men, salvation from emotional distress is in limited supply and they often deem themselves unworthy of it. A fitting analogy for this dilemma is that of a sinking ship. With limited lifeboat capacity, men understand that women and children should be the first to board and they should stay behind, if required.
The tendency for men to consider themselves as less important would once give human tribes an evolutionary advantage as men ultimately play a smaller role in the human lifecycle. However, the notion of self-sacrifice doesn’t translate well to modern times where we live in relative abundance. In reality, opportunities to improve wellbeing are not in short supply anymore; there are enough lifeboats for everyone to make it off the ship, including men, yet this enduring subconscious, magnanimous and stigmatised masculine impulse can ultimately consign us to suboptimal mental health.
For all men currently impacted in some way by a subconscious bias of masculinity, those men who keep their mental health at arm’s length, the situation is not hopeless. We believe that through a normalisation and encouragement of conversations related to the betterment of men’s mental health, we are able to slowly terraform the social landscape to break down the stigma, and contribute to men finding comfort in sharing their journey with others. Change may be slow, but at Mendl we continue to advocate for the power of conversation to spark change to break down masculine stigma, and remain passionate to give Men’s Mental Health a platform for its voice to be heard.
Join the Mendl Movement today.
Key Determinants of the Health and the Well-Being of Men and Boys - Will H. Courtenay
Cognitive–Behavioral Treatment of Depression in Men: Tailoring Treatment and Directions for Future Research - Jason S. Spendelow
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