CW: mentions of suicide, death, and substance abuse
Clarifying note: Both sex and gender exist on spectrums. In this blogpost, the use of the terms “male” and “female” are used to refer to the sex assigned at birth.
Telling people to “man up” is a thing of the past- men are facing increases in mental health related deaths at an alarming rate, and for the general public, it’s going undetected and overlooked. Why?
Surveys from across the globe reveal that there is a prevalence of men suffering from mental illnesses but are reluctant to get help.
Mental Health America (MHA) reported that mental health professionals diagnose depression more often in women than in men, but more than 6 million American men experience symptoms of depression annually — and most go undiagnosed. One reason can be that men’s symptoms of depression can manifest differently compared to females. Males may show increased levels of anger, aggression, and irritability, as opposed to low mood in females. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reports that males are more likely to see a doctor for physical symptoms as opposed to emotional symptoms, a reason why depression may go undiagnosed.
In 2021, men died by suicide 3.90 times more than women, additionally being 3 times more likely to die as consequence of alcohol abuse.
Men are thought to be deterred from engaging in mental health services because of the need to conform to traditional masculine gender roles. These consist of invulnerability, stereotypes of stoicism, and self-reliance. None of which fit comfortably with help-seeking, especially when it comes to mental health needs. This has been enforced throughout history through norms such as telling boys to “man up” when they show signs of being upset, or the saying “boys will be boys” which justifies inappropriate and sometimes abusive behavior. There is not one way to be a boy, or one way to be a girl. If a man were to fail to align with these enforced gender roles, it can result in the internalizing of discriminative views imposed by society, which further discourage men from seeking help.
A Certain Type of Masculinity
A term that describes conforming to traditional gender roles is “toxic masculinity” where there is a need to aggressively compete to dominate others to encompass the societal pressure of the tendencies of men. The impacts of toxic masculinity seemingly have no bounds, however none of which are healthy. In terms of mental health, toxic masculinity dictates that negative emotions in men are perceived as a sign of weakness. This discourages men from reaching out to friends, family, or professionals, and therefore negatively impacts men’s overall help-seeking behaviors. Due to stigma and societal norms, men displaying traits of toxic masculinity are unable to express themselves or emotional needs and in the long run can lead to feelings of isolation, unhappiness, and poor health.
So although mental health is a core component of overall wellness, for a lot of men, it is routinely overlooked in favor of physical health in order to be presented as strong and capable. Kevin Hines, a suicide attempt survivor and public speaker expressed, "Men are so focused on the ideal of masculinity and how they have to appear to be, we forget to cry. We forget to be emotional, to show vulnerability, to show pain."
Rebuilding and Rebranding
The opposite of toxic masculinity is deemed “healthy masculinity” and is the idea where men feel as though they can be emotionally expressive without the fear of being judged. The Good Men Project, a website that thrives to highlight stories of what it means to be a good men, states that there are four pillars of healthy masculinity:
expression (yang): “It’s the physical, felt confidence of the ability to penetrate any situation with our consciousness… the knowledge that you can and will bring your truth to the situation, that you will be received, that your truth will compete with other truths, and that you will guide and control the course of events based on your desire and particular wisdom.”
surrender (yin): “It is the opposite of the first. It’s the capacity to surrender, and to have the confidence of knowing you will be taken care of… [surrender yourself] not in a defeated or brooding way, but in an open, unconcerned, relaxed way.”
boundary (yang): “How to set boundaries, in real time—how to knock down threats big and small, as they occur…The ability to say no, without needing to apologize for the fact that it might sting—this is an aspect of healthy masculine empowerment.”
union (yin): “the ability to relax your boundaries. It’s the ability to let down your guard, to feel, and to be felt by another…requires you to have the confidence to be vulnerable by knowing that if something threatening were to happen, you would be able to quickly set a boundary.”
Additionally as a society, we need to step up, and hold ourselves accountable. There has been a long history of sayings, behaviors, and gender roles that influence and validate toxic masculinity and it has to stop. A few ways we are able to emphasize healthy masculinity is by confidently addressing disrespect and misconceptions, encouraging and supporting men to express emotions freely, listening to experiences, validating feelings, and genuinely and intentionally checking in with male friends and loved ones.
As with everything else we may need to unlearn as individuals or as a society, it’s not an easy feat, and it will take some time. However, baby steps are still steps in the right direction, and we need to stay strong and confident in the fight to break down gender roles and stereotypes. Additionally, suicide is serious but preventable. Some warning signs in yourself or others may consist of: increase in talking about suicide, feeling hopeless, having no motivation or reason to live, feeling like a burden to others, increase of substance use, withdrawal from family, friends or activities, sleeping too much or too little, saying final goodbyes, and or irritability, depression, anger or anxiety. Contrary to popular belief, asking a person about suicide does not increase the risk of committing suicide, but rather can save a life. If yourself or someone you know needs help, please call the suicide prevention lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or visit http://suicidepreventionlifeline.org