New analysis found links between so-called masculine traits and depression and substance use. We asked men about gender stereotypes and mental health
Efforts have been made to challenge traditional stereotypes, but there is still pressure on men to be strong, independent, stoical, competitive and tough. According to research published by the American Psychological Association, these “masculine traits” have been linked with mental health issues such as depression and substance abuse.
Joel Wong, who led the research team at Indiana University Bloomington, said: “In general, individuals who conformed strongly to masculine norms tended to have poorer mental health and less favourable attitudes toward seeking psychological help, although the results differed depending on specific types of masculine norms.”
The research collated results of more than 70 US-based studies involving more than 19,000 men over 11 years. It focused on the relationship between mental health and conformity to 11 masculine norms. They included a desire to win, need for emotional control, and risk-taking.
The traits most closely linked to mental health problems were playboy behaviour or sexual promiscuity, Wong said.
We asked a group to talk about their own experiences of mental health and what they thought of this new analysis.
Daniel Briggs, 44, from Stockton-on-Tees: ‘The pressure to be manly stopped me getting help earlier’
Depression feels like there’s a fog surrounding me. It is closing in and I cannot see what’s in front of me. It’s all-consuming and nothing else matters. I can see the fog building but I am powerless to stop it.
I experienced depression for about a decade before accepting what was going on. As a man it’s definitely much harder to talk about your emotions. It was my wife who made me go to the doctor. I had been behaving erratically: talking about killing myself, disappearing off for hours and leaving her worried sick. I was eventually diagnosed with clinical depression.
The pressure to uphold the traditional idea of masculinity stopped me getting help earlier. I come from the north and used to work in a shipyard. Among those I worked with there was an old-fashioned view of being a man – we don’t talk about our feelings. If you get upset about anything other than football you are considered a “sissy”. When people say, “How are you doing?”, if you say “A bit crap” the classic response was: “Could be worse.”
It was the same with older members of my family, who’d say, “Just get on with it”. Don’t complain or talk about what’s going on with you. It took me a long time to open up. Even going to a counsellor was difficult; talking about feelings was something women did.
But talking was exactly what I needed to do, and I am now training to be a counsellor. I lost a lot of friends, especially male ones, opening up about my depression. There’s a huge stigma around it. Doing counselling and getting involved with local charities, people have said talking to me made them feel better. I’ve had men thank me because it made them realise they are not alone. Men need to accept that talking is good and that the hardest part is showing emotion. Walking around with a smile on your face, telling jokes – that’s the easy part. But talking about life and your feelings, rather than how your football team did or how many pints you drank on Saturday night, is much harder.
Chama Kay, 25, from London: ‘My African parents wanted me to understand: you keep this to yourself’
I have suffered from poor mental health since I was about 16; I remember this vividly because I began to self-harm. It was also around this time that people started saying to me, “You need to talk to someone”. It took three years, two failed relationships and one botched suicide attempt for me to finally take this advice.
Looking back now, aged 25, I can see why, like many men, I found accessing mental healthcare so difficult. Masculine ideals of self-reliance, stoicism, sexual promiscuity and dominance over women do not lend themselves to emotional vulnerability. But it’s important to realise that this is not a mindset that suddenly appears. Rather, it’s instilled into men from a young age. I have personally lost count of the times I have heard parents of young boys admonish their own or other people’s sons for being “too sensitive” or “soft”. So acknowledging and addressing how we raise boys is vital here.
We must not dismiss the role culture plays in how men view and approach mental health. When I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder there was one clear message my African parents wanted me to understand: you keep this to yourself. For years I was discouraged from getting help and actually felt guilty when I did. For many black communities taboos around mental health undoubtedly exist. But more than this, there is the awareness within these communities that structural racism means black boys, as well as black girls, are already at a societal disadvantage. Higher unemployment rates, longer prison sentences, lack of representation in media, politics and business and numerous other statistics will attest to this. The fear that poor mental health will simply be another stigma for black men to have to fight, coupled with many preexisting taboos, makes for a very tough battle for many.
With all this in mind, I often ask myself what can be done to help. I do not believe any man wants to feel emotionally closed off, lonely and isolated and I know they don’t want to be taking their own lives at the rate they are. By looking at the most sacred commandment of alpha masculinity, I believe it is possible to start to allow many men to address what they truly value, ask whether they are living according to their own standards and hopefully in this way begin to form a healthier relationship with their mental health.
Robert Smith, 50, from Brighton: ‘It’s not about gender or masculine traits – it’s about how much empathy you have’
Over the years I’ve had bouts of depression and anxiety. I’ve experienced severe sleep problems and suicidal thoughts. With years of psychotherapy I now know that all these are symptoms of complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This is like PTSD but instead of being caused by a single traumatic event with flashbacks, it is caused by chronic or long-term exposure to emotional trauma.
My mental health has been helped almost exclusively by strong friendships and professional relationships with women and their empathy towards me. Had I been sexist, I can’t see how these important relationships would have developed. So I imagine there is a correlation with sexism and poor mental health, but I doubt that “masculinity” is the cause of poor mental health, rather that classical masculinity, which involves objectifying others, is non-empathetic and perhaps indicates other issues. I would imagine there is a similar correlation with racists and poor mental health. So I would consider the key factor to be one that is not exclusive to men, but affects all people who severely lack empathy and isolate themselves as a result.
In the past I’ve maybe found it harder as a man to talk to people about mental health, but not nowadays. I used to find it harder, because to talk, you need a support network but with severe mental health problems you can scare people off and have no support. Now I have this and I have different people to talk to. But to have empathetic friends, it really helps to be empathetic too, so you can share problems.
Tom Ogier, 31, from London: ‘I’ve only quite recently felt comfortable talking about vulnerability’
It can be very hard to admit vulnerability. Perhaps being a fairly big guy it’s easy to appear manly, to play that role, but the traits of “manliness” leave so little space for other important elements of our humanity. Traits that society might portray as more “feminine,” such as compassion, understanding and care, are essential, and sources of great strength.
Men feel they aren’t allowed to open up, even to themselves, for fear of being seen as weak or unattractive.
From boyhood we are told to be brave and ambitious, overcoming obstacles on sports fields, battlefields, boardrooms. But we don’t see many of the mental challenges we face in this way. They are seen as weaknesses that shouldn’t be there, rather than parts of everyone’s lives.
We will all face grief, loss, and relationship issues, and these challenges take their toll, so we’d do well to seek to equip ourselves with understanding.
There’s a Leonard Cohen line I often think of, when he went on stage and couldn’t perform for some reason. He said he didn’t feel strong enough because “somehow the male and female parts of me refuse to encounter one another tonight”. I like the idea of acknowledging that both need to combine in an individual for a person to function. The same is true of society. By balancing notions of strength which tend to be thought of in a binary way, as either feminine or masculine, people might be much healthier. A world without sexism would be better for everyone. Not only would women be respected, but men might be better able to appreciate more feminine traits and strengths, in others and in themselves.