For quite some time now, I’ve been extremely interested in the intersection between gender (which is a social construct) and mental health. My interest initially related to women’s mental health – issues such as pregnancy-related mood disorders, premenstrual dysphoric disorder (finally added to the DSM as an official diagnosis just this past edition!) and the stress that so many women in our society feel as they juggle multiple roles of wife, mother, friend, daughter/sibling and professional.
In the last few years, however, my interest switched to men’s mental health. Seeing so many women burn out being both mothers and professionals, I began to wonder where the men were in this picture. While so many men are extremely involved and amazing fathers, the reality is that feminism opened doors for women to be in both the public and private spheres but did not grant men the same courtesy. Thanks to the feminist movement, women were given choice in terms of staying in the home or working outside of the home. Unfortunately, this opportunity wasn’t expanded to men. There is still a stigma around being a stay at home dad or taking paternity leave. Going even further, there’s still a stigma around the “sensitive” man who cries and is “too emotional”. We want our male partners to be simultaneously “soft” and “strong” – to be confident and assertive while remaining “in touch with their feminine side”. In essence, we’re trapping men in a double-bind and it’s no wonder that so many of them end up on my couch.
So what’s really going on? How are we socializing boys, what do we teach about the construct of masculinity and how does such messaging hinder their psychological health?
Research shows that boys in the U.S. are socialized to believe that men are “independent, fearless and tough, and…avoid emotional expressions”. Additional aspects of masculinity include: perceptions of self-reliance, competitiveness, control and ability to provide for others, as well as resilience and ability to manage stress and emotions without displaying vulnerability. Norms are instilled from an early age, and research has shown that men experience a great deal of pressure to conform to such socially-constructed notions of masculinity.
Two researchers – Eisler and Skidmore – developed the “Male Gender Role Stress Model” (1987) in which they identified 5 of the most emotionally stressful factors for men:
1) physical inadequacy;
2) emotional inexpressiveness with regard to the tender emotions;
3) subordination to women, involving situations in which women are dominant, in charge or more successful;
4) feeling intellectual inferiority, which threatens a man’s perceptions of control and rational decisiveness; and
5) performance failures in work or sex, areas of a man’s life that appear to require instrumental success for the maintenance of self-esteem.
While this model was developed roughly 30 years ago, it is still upheld as one of the leading models on masculinity and mental health.
In regard to mental health specifically, Psychology Today identified 5 key obstacles that men must overcome in order to seek psychological help:
- Hegemonic masculinity
- Help-seeking avoidance
- Emotional suppression
- Substance abuse
- Destructive health behaviors
The issue of masculinity negatively impacting men’s mental health has reached a severe level, and for the first time in history, depression among men is being called “the silent crisis”. Currently, men make up over 75 percent of suicide victims in the United States, with one man killing himself every 20 minutes. Those at the greatest risk are men living in small towns and rural areas, with the highest rates in the country found in Wyoming, Montana, New Mexico and Utah. Additional at-risk populations include veterans, young Native-Americans and gay men.
So the big question…why? What are some possible contributing factors to this “silent crisis”? Some hypotheses have been suggested, including the following:
- The “massive decline in traditional male industries such as manufacturing, forestry and fisheries”…leaves “large swathes of men in certain regions unemployed or under-employed” (Psychology Today, 2/6/17).
- Issues with fulfilling traditional “breadwinner” roles, causing men to feel a lack of pride, purpose and meaning.
- Perceived and/or real rejection from mainstream society may lead to feelings of alienation and isolation.
Men are essentially “psychologically isolated”. They experience stress, pressure and the same spectrum of emotions that women do and yet they’re socialized to believe that the only “acceptable” expressions of emotion are hunger, fatigue or anger. In addition, men are socially isolated from one another in terms of talking about their feelings. Most men lack male friends with whom they can share painful experiences and process their emotions.
The current reality is not healthy, nor is it sustainable. Fortunately, some people have begun speaking out against this situation (see Justin Baldoni’s excellent TED talk, “Why I’m Done Trying To Be Man Enough” here). Organizations such as Mantherapy.org have been created to cater specifically to men and to the mental health issues that masculinity creates. And research is being initiated, dialogue is being generated and hopefully in time, enough people will catch on to this mental health crisis and advocate for large-scale, systemic change.