Mental Health and being a ‘Man’

In its work on mental health issues among men, The Mental Health Foundation explores the ways in which social expectations of gender roles have an impact on their well-being. That expectation puts men in the role of breadwinner and refers to traditional ‘masculine traits’ such as strength, dominance, control and stoicism. These are not necessarily negative traits of course, but research has shown that they often negatively impact the ways in which men feel able to show other human traits, such as vulnerability and open communication about feelings and emotions.

It perhaps used to be thought that men didn’t suffer from mental health conditions – they didn’t talk about them or seek help as much as women, so that was taken by many to mean that their ‘masculine strength’ was somehow a factor in protecting them. However, we now know that not to be true.

Suicide is the largest cause of death, for example, for men under 50. In 2017, almost 6,000 deaths were recorded for suicide and of those, 75% were men. Higher rates of suicide are generally found in minority communities, including men from BAME backgrounds, gay men, war veterans and those with low incomes. Of the latter group, middle-aged men are particularly vulnerable due to a range of socio-economic factors.

In their article ‘Men’s Mental Health: A Silent Crisis’, the charity Safeline points to the following statistics:

• 12.5% of men in the UK are suffering from one of the common mental health disorders. This figure obviously underestimates the problem, since it only refers to the number of men who actually access help and are, therefore, recorded in official statistics.

• Men are a lot less likely to access psychological therapies than women, with only 36% of referrals being men.

It’s clear that mental health problems can affect anybody but, of course, discrimination and stigma can make people very reluctant to open up about their experiences and unfortunately, the image of someone seeking help and needing support is in contrast to the image of what a man should ‘look like’. Mental health has continued to be a taboo subject as a result, with many men suffering from feelings of isolation, loneliness and anxiety as a result. Common phrases such as ‘man up’ don’t help – they simply reinforce the stereotype.

So, how do we start to subvert these stereotypes and enable men to open up about their emotions?

It is essential to start at an early age, in the way that we bring up boys and teach them, albeit subconsciously, about gender roles in society. Children learn from us what they will be expected to and how they will be expected to behave. Parents have a pivotal role in forming their children’s ideas about what is means to be a man or a woman – if they are fed the idea that little girls are able to openly express themselves but ‘boys don’t cry’, then that will be a concept that sticks. If they believe that they will be told to ‘man up’ if they show emotion or vulnerability, then boys will learn to protect themselves by hiding their feelings.

Tree House Recovery, an American organisation, comments that too often we see men’s well-being pushed aside in favour of cultural stereotypes which view the male character as the ‘strong, silent, unemotional sex’ – so teachers, parents, therapists and so on need to work to overcome that, focusing on the positive aspects of expressing emotions, and instilling positive self-image and healthy emotional habits in young men. It’s critical to understand that all of the most common mental health problems (such as anxiety and depression, for example) begin early in life, so prevention is the best way we have of tackling these problems for future generations at least.

The good news is that things are changing, albeit slowly. Is it becoming more acceptable for men to seek help and high profile famous faces are lending support to that, with various celebrities having come forward themselves to disclose their own mental health issues.

There may be some warning signs that you are struggling right now:

• Anger, irritability, or aggressiveness.
• Noticeable changes in mood, energy level, or appetite.
• Difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much.
• Difficulty concentrating, feeling restless, or on edge.
• Increased worry or feeling stressed.
• Misuse of alcohol and/or drugs.
• Sadness or hopelessness.
• Suicidal thoughts.
• Feeling flat or having trouble feeling positive emotions.
• Engaging in high-risk activities.
• Aches, pains, headaches, or digestive problems without a clear cause.
• Obsessive thinking or compulsive behavior.
• Thoughts or behaviours that interfere with work, family, or social life.
• Unusual thinking or behaviours that concern other people.

These are warning signs for all of us, irrespective of gender – why not get them checked out? Remember, looking after yourself and admitting your problems is a sign of strength, not weakness – that is a social construct, nothing more.

Good luck.