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Mental Health, Masculinity, and Men

Depressed man

This is a guest post written by Quinton A. Clawson for the official blog of the Mental Health Awareness Project. The views and opinions in this post do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of those involved with the Mental Health Awareness Project. We are publishing this guest post in hopes that you may find it helpful or informative.
 
 
 

When I was young, I remember once crying over spilled milk (literally), and I remember so clearly my father’s response, “quit crying or I’ll give you something to cry about”. Little did I know then that this would be one of many lessons on the masculine values in Western culture. As a male, it wasn’t socially appropriate for me to cry (especially over spilling milk), and despite my frustration and fear that I would get in trouble for the mess, the only response my father would have accepted would have been anger or stoicism. In a nutshell, “toughen up”.

Western culture dictates a set of behaviors held by the ideal man that we call masculinity. This masculinity includes toughness, stoicism, heterosexism, self-sufficient attitudes and lack of emotional sensitivity (Wall & Kristjanson, 2005) . For all intents and purposes, my father was the perfect male, and if I had spent more of my childhood and adolescent years in his presence, I’m sure I would’ve been influenced by the same social norms he had abided by his entire life. I didn’t though, and after my father disappeared at the age of ten, I was instead raised with the influences of a female in Western society. Talking about how I felt with my mother became a nightly routine, crying was no longer punished with threats of violence, and reaching out for emotional support not only became a rewarded behavior, but a necessary one.

Now, as a clinical therapist, the idea of masculinity as defined by Western culture is alien to me. The very values of Western masculinity seem to contradict what we now know about staying mentally healthy, and we don’t have to look far to see the effects that these values have. Men are more likely to have a substance use disorder, more likely to commit a violent crime, and males tend to under-perform in almost every academic venture when compared to women. More frighteningly, about 79% of successful suicide attempts are carried out by men putting suicide as the 7th leading cause of death among men at a rate of about one suicide very twenty minutes (Mental Health America, 2019).

Research has shown that disclosure of feelings and thoughts, having a support network such as friends and family, and outwards expressions of feelings such as crying, benefit an individual’s mental health. The Western idea of masculinity denies these things to males. Per the Western idea of masculinity, men are expected to be self-sufficient making men less likely to have a strong support network. It expects males to lack emotional sensitivity leading to a lack of disclosure of thoughts and feelings, and it expects stoicism and toughness disallowing any forms of outwards expression, excluding the only form of acceptable outward expression, anger.

Nearly 1 in 5 adults in the United States experience a mental health illness in a given year (National Alliance on Mental Illness, 2019) . With mental health illnesses impacting 20% of our population every year, it would seem illogical to place stigma on any set of individuals seeking help, however, our Western idea of masculinity does just this. A research study found that men overwhelmingly do not seek out mental health treatment when compared to women, and we could conclude that this is at least partially influenced by the stigma men face when challenged with discussing their mental health.

The truth of the matter is that men experience mental health in much of the same way that women experience mental health. Men become depressed, stressed, anxious, and scared. NAMI reports that in 2017 an estimated 15.1% of males suffered from a mental health illness (though this figure is probably under-reported due to the factors we just discussed). The only difference between men and women regarding mental health is the way in which men are expected to behave but abiding by those values of Western masculinity does not eliminate a male’s feelings. Instead, it only causes men to suffer in silence.

Changing a culture is no easy task, but nonetheless it is necessary. We must strive to redefine masculinity, not as a facade of strength but as a truth of human existence. We must normalize the feelings and need for support of males, and reward men who engage in behaviors beneficial for their mental health. We must allow men to experience life in open and truthful terms, their lives depend on it.
 
 
 
 
 

Mental Health America. (2019, July 21). Infographic: Mental Health for Men. Retrieved from
mentalhealthamerica.net: https://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/infographic-mental-health-
men

National Alliance on Mental Illness. (2019, July 21). Mental Health by the Numbers. Retrieved from
Nami.org: https://www.nami.org/learn-more/mental-health-by-the-numbers

Wall, D., & Kristjanson, L. (2005). Men, culture, and hegemonic masculinity: understanding the
experience of prostate cancer. Nursing Inquiry, Vol. 12, 97.

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