The Role of Masculine Norms in the Male Mental Health Crisis

masculine norms and male mental health crisis

We are currently seeing a crisis in men’s mental health. In the UK, suicide is the leading cause of death for men under 50. Worldwide, there has been a huge spike in the rate of suicide; with a 60% increase in the rate in the past 45 years. However, it is men who make up most of these statistics. In the US, for example, the suicide rate among men is nearly four times higher than it is for women. It is a disturbing phenomenon that requires an explanation. It seems that men are facing some unique issues when it comes to their mental health. And a lot of the reasons behind these problems relate to masculine norms.

The Conformity to Masculine Norms Inventory (CNMI) is a widely used measure of 11 masculine norms. These are standards and expectations that men feel pressured to live up to. Researchers have found that the degree to which men conform these masculine norms can have an impact on their mental health.

Although these norms relate to masculine culture in the US, we can see that these same standards apply – in some form or another – in many other countries. And these widespread attitudes about what it means to be a man help to explain why so many men are struggling with their mental health.

We can pinpoint seven factors about masculinity that shed some light on the male mental health crisis. It’s important to be aware of how cultural expectations, standards, and values surrounding gender influence our mental health. Increased understanding of the relationship between masculinity and mental health can help men to challenge unhealthy gender norms and prioritise their well-being.

1. Self-Reliance

The masculine norm of self-reliance is one, in particular, that is driving poor mental health. Many men feel very strongly that, in order to be a proper man they need to do everything on their own. Asking for help is a sign of weakness. Wanting support is emasculating. Indeed, the Campaign Against Living Miserably – a charity which works to tackle the male suicide epidemic – published a report showing that a lot of men don’t want to speak up when they struggle with their mental health. They would rather try to ‘push through’ or ‘get over’ their problems without any outside help. Men are much more likely to avoid therapy, something which may be absolutely essential to coping with mental health issues or preventing relapse.

Also, a study from the University of Melbourne’s Mental Health Centre found that men’s insistence on being self-reliant increases their risk of suicide. Men who strongly identify with self-reliance do not reach out in times of need and hardship. Whether it’s opening up to a friend or family member, or speaking to a professional, many men avoid it. Of course, when you have a mental health issue and keep it to yourself, it can worsen over time. When depression, for example, becomes severe and untreated, suicidal thoughts can occur. Professor Jane Pirkis, the lead researcher of the Australian study, said:

Notions of masculinity aren’t just dreamed up by individuals, they are imposed by society from childhood in quite subtle ways. So if a sense of needing to be self-reliant is an issue for some men, and some women also, we as a society need to think about how we are bringing up our boys and girls.

Since a lot of men just to deal with problems on their own, they end up lacking the same kind of support network that their female counterparts benefit from. Women tend to feel far more comfortable opening up to their female friends and seeking emotional support than men do with their male friends. Amongst male peers and friends, the desire to preserve a macho persona can make men extremely resistant and hesitant about revealing their emotional life. This is highly problematic because a support network – made up of people you can trust and confide in – is often a crucial part of mental health recovery.

2. Masculine Ideas of Strength 

Another one of the common masculine norms is emotional control. Men feel expected to adopt a stoic attitude and avoid becoming ‘too emotional’ or sensitive. This is viewed as a clear sign of strength. And of course, emotional control in certain stressful situations can be brave and helpful. But if repressing emotional expression is the default, then a range of issues can follow.

As a result of gender socialisation, men are more likely than women to perceive sharing emotions as a sign of weakness and vulnerability. When growing up, boys may hear phrases such as “man up”, “suck it up”, “get a grip”, and so on. These phrases can make a serious impression on you as a child. Many men carry around the notion that to cry or show tender emotions is emasculating, the most embarrassing and humiliating thing that could happen, especially in front of friends or a partner.

Masculine norms encourage men to keep a tight lid on their emotions. They have to bottle up their pain so that they can maintain their masculine identity and self-esteem. The problem, though, is that a stiff upper lip prevents men from being understood and cared for. One of the key factors that aid recovery from a mental health condition is openness. Keeping your mental health issue a secret, trying to handle it on your own, can create a much worse, out-of-control situation. Indeed, narrow ideas of strength are causing serious harm to men.

3. Compassion Isn’t Manly

Women aren’t necessarily more compassionate than men, despite common preconceptions. Emma Seppala, Associate Director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University, argues that men and women simply tend to express compassion differently. The reason, she says, that we may believe women are more compassionate is because we think of compassion in a limited way, as only standing for tenderness, kindness, warmth, gentleness, and nurturing. Men, however, may express compassion in the form of heroism, protection, and acts of bravery.

Nonetheless, men – especially highly sensitive men – still have this capacity for tenderness. But they may avoid showing kindness towards themselves and other men because that might be viewed as ‘effeminate’ and emasculating. ‘Self-care’ seems to be reserved for women, not men. The consequence of this attitude is that a lot of men who are struggling don’t take care of themselves in the same way that women might. Showing kindness towards male friends, relatives, or peers may also seem awkward and unmanly; so many men avoid doing so.

When you suffer from a mental illness, self-compassion can be an effective way to reduce the symptoms, especially if you’re struggling with feelings of worthlessness, self-criticism, guilt, or shame. People can be quite hard on themselves when they have clinical depression or anxiety, for instance, believing that they must be weak, broken, or a failure because of the difficult emotions and thoughts they’re experiencing. But men, in particular, can be highly self-critical and hard on themselves when experiencing a mental illness. When this self-stigma is combined with a resistance to compassion, mental health tends to worsen.

4. Anger is the Only Acceptable Emotion

While it is true that men may have a harder time expressing their emotional pain than women, not all emotions are bottled up in response to a personal crisis or mental health issue. A lot of men find that the only acceptable emotion they can express is anger. Experiencing hurt, sadness, despair, fear, guilt, anxiety, or low self-esteem may not seem very strong or manly, whereas aggression or anger may be thought of as consistent with a macho identity. In order to avoid showing vulnerability, for fear of losing face, men will express their pain in the form of anger and irritability.

The reason that a man’s poor mental health may go unnoticed and misunderstood is precisely because it is hard to realise that his anger comes from a place of suffering. Furthermore, it can be difficult to respond compassionately to someone who is angry, irritable, and volatile, as this behaviour is often unpleasant to deal with. Anger and irritability are symptoms of depression, although they may be more common in men with depression compared to their female counterparts. When your mental health issues are expressed as anger, this can take a significant toll on your relationships and professional life, which can, in turn, exacerbate a mental health issue. It’s a vicious cycle.

If you are angry a lot of the time and this is a departure from your normal behaviour, it’s important to consider that an underlying mental health problem could be at play. Personal insight and self-compassion can make a big difference here. Understanding that your anger is based on pain will allow you to seek the help that you need.

5. Risky Behaviour

Mental health issues don’t discriminate based on gender. They affect both men and women. Nevertheless, it appears that conditions like depression, for example, can be a gendered experience. Men deal with it differently to women – and this is due to certain notions about masculinity. As a case in point, another masculine norm is risk-taking, which means that men will try to show their manliness by taking higher risks than women. And this type of behaviour can manifest during a mental health crisis.

Rather than share their struggles with someone else, men will try to numb, mask, hide, or escape their pain by engaging in risky activities. This often includes self-harm, alcohol and drug abuse, and violent, reckless behaviour. Men are much more likely to drink heavily and take drugs than women when experiencing depression. Which can help to explain how men’s mental health often spirals out of control, since the abuse of alcohol (which is a depressant) and certain drugs can have a major negative impact on mental health. If alcoholism or drug addiction develops, then a manageable mental health issue could turn into a much more mentally and physically harmful problem.

When it comes to suicide statistics, women in the UK are more likely to attempt suicide than men. The reason that the male suicide rate is so high is that men tend to use more violent, riskier methods, such as hanging and firearms. Women, on the other hand, are more likely to use non-violent methods, such as overdosing, which carries a higher chance of failure.

6. Men and Relationships

Power over women and playboy behaviour are two other masculine norms that help to illuminate the unique challenges that men face. Indeed, a study published in the Journal of Counseling Psychology found that men who view themselves as playboys and pursue control over women are more likely to suffer from mental health issues than men who don’t. It’s worth noting that some researchers caution against drawing conclusions based on the gender norms in the CNMI, claiming that they are outdated and over-simplified. Masculinity, they argue, is far too complex to be encapsulated by 11 traits.

Nonetheless, we can see how identifying strongly with power over women and playboy behaviour may translate into poorer mental health. If men believe that their self-esteem depends on how many sexual relationships they’ve had, then not having any intimate relationship could be a driver of low self-esteem, more so than for women. In addition, men appear to interpret rejection as an affront to their masculinity, based on the cultural expectation that a ‘real man’ takes control in romantic situations and is the one who ‘wins’ a woman over.

If a man is single and not having a sexually active life or has been rejected or broken up with, this can be experienced as extremely emasculating. Men may lose all of their self-confidence and self-esteem in these scenarios and judge themselves as pathetic, weak, a loser, or a failure as a man. Cultural expectations about masculinity mean that men are more likely to have extreme reactions following rejection. In this way, conformity to control over women and playboy behaviour may be driving some of the self-esteem issues that men experience today.

7. Male Ideas About Success

While the male breadwinner family model is in decline, men still, nevertheless, feel expected to be the breadwinner, as shown in a report by CALM. This ties in with some of the other masculine norms, including winning, dominance, primacy of work, and pursuit of status. Messages about male success – as communicated in socialisation, entertainment media and wider culture – can affect men’s self-esteem in a detrimental way.

Being a provider, successful, and working a high-status job may feel essential to a man’s sense of pride. As CALM have highlighted, 29% of men surveyed believe losing their job would make them less of a man. This is why unemployment and job loss can be a highly distressing experience for men. This is clarified by the fact that issues related to employment and money have been linked to the male suicide epidemic. And the rise of insecure work certainly isn’t helping this situation.

In the UK, nearly a third of young men live with their parents, as they struggle to climb on the property ladder. We find more young men than ever before are living at home in other Western countries, too, such as the US and Canada. As a man growing up in these countries, your self-esteem is often tied to your independence, in part because this signals financial and career success. Living at home with your parents can, therefore, feel quite emasculating for men. It can lead to a massive drop in self-confidence, even if there are valid, understandable reasons for this living arrangement.

As we can see, there are a whole host of factors relating to masculinity that are shaping the crisis in men’s mental health. Masculinity, of course, is an incredibly complex concept, which cannot be completely described by 11 masculine norms. However, what they illustrate is that cultural expectations can certainly have a significant impact on men’s mental health. It’s crucial that we change the narrative around masculinity and encourage a culture that equates strength and self-respect with openness and compassion.

3 Comments

  1. Disposable dad
    August 11, 2020 / 8:20 pm

    Great victim blaming.

    Why don’t you do some proper journalism and look into the family court’s treatment of fathers? Or the poverty and nature of employment our society offers most men? Or the lack of DV support for men?

    Men don’t talk because they know, or find out, that nobody gives a shit.

    • Sam Woolfe
      Author
      August 11, 2020 / 11:04 pm

      If this came across as victim-blaming, that certainly wasn’t my intention. My intention was not to blame men in this article, as the blame doesn’t lie with the victims, of course, but lies with culture and society, I think, and the pressure they put on men. Were there any specific points you thought came across as victim-blaming? I’d be happy to address them.

      I agree that the family court’s treatment of fathers is often discriminatory and more than that, the criminal justice system sometimes seems to hold an unfair attitude towards male criminals vs. female criminals. The lack of domestic violence support for men is also a big problem. That doesn’t just come down to men not opening up, there’s a real and unfortunate lack of resources to help men in those situations.

  2. August 13, 2020 / 5:02 am

    I find it understandable. I am not a male, but with how my parents brought me up, or the lack of it, make me more or less feel those you wrote. In my youth, I desperately yearn to be a male instead of who I am, it faded overtime as I got out of the house. I do agree at your suggestion that we are in serious need to look again at how we raise our children.

    Thank you.

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