In Canada alone, thousands of suicides take place each year – and around 75% of these suicides result in male fatalities.
These stats are similar globally – in the UK, for example, men are three times as likely to die by suicide than women, while in the US, men are over three times as likely to complete a suicide attempt.
This is the most devastating– but by no means the only – side effect of the stigma attached to men’s mental health.
Starting almost from birth, boys are indoctrinated with an image of what a man should be, when they’re presented with toys – or shown movies and TV shows – depicting über-masculine superhero role models, while there is a distinct lack of representation of sensitive, open, emotional men for young boys to look up to.
As they grow up, these strong, tough, independent, emotionally closed depictions of men may encourage young boys to hide their emotions – to hold it all in, if they feel sad, depressed or lonely – and this, unfortunately, is often worsened by the input of their parents and by the rest of society.
In the media, inside homes, and even by teachers, it’s likely that every boy – at some point in their lives – has heard a variation of the phrase, “Boys don’t cry.”
Though these people’s intentions were probably harmless – and in all likelihood, probably stems from being distressed at the child’s own sadness, saying such things in an attempt to put an end to it – they, nevertheless, teach children from an early age that crying is unacceptable for boys; that they should hide their emotions and not let others see what they’re truly feeling.
When essentially all boys are indoctrinated with this notion, how can they be expected to open up emotionally when they become adults? When most boys grow up with the belief that boys shouldn’t cry – and by extension, show emotions such as sadness and depression – it will, of course, make it difficult for them to open up to each other, as well as to anyone else close to them, never mind go to seek help from a professional.
Rigid gender roles, and their penetration of every part of society, harms the development of both men and women, though even the roles that – at first – look to only limit girls and women, similarly affect men as they grow.
Sayings such as, “You throw like a girl.” don’t only affect a girl’s confidence in her own strength and sporting ability, but they teach boys that to be like a girl is somehow inferior, or wrong. Young boys are often taught – sometimes subliminally – that girls are weaker.
It’s no surprise then, that boys may steer clear from presenting stereotypically female traits, such as empathy, compassion, emotionality, gentleness, and sensitivity, and will instead try to front a hard, masculine exterior which may not represent who they truly are.
The stigma around showing these “feminine” traits – and around expressing any emotions – contributes to the harmful build-up of emotions in men, which they may not feel comfortable enough to reveal to anyone else, lest they seem weak, or inferior as a man.
Moreover, this is likely why many men feel like they shouldn’t have to seek help for their mental health – or that they shouldn’t need to talk to someone about their problems – and that having mental health difficulties, such as anxiety and depression, is a point of weakness, since it doesn’t fit with the archetypal ‘strong macho man’ that men are taught to be the ‘norm’.
On its own, this phenomenon can lead to a disjointed, uncertain sense of identity, which can – in turn – result in low self-esteem, dissatisfaction with the self, and a range of complementing mental health problems.
As boys begin to grow into men, the rigid expectations of what a man should be expands to include the physical as they are put under even more pressure to conform to the expectations of their gender.
One of the most (wrongly) normalised examples of this, is the expectation that men must be tall, and there is an almost accepted animosity towards men of shorter stature throughout society. Secondly, that men should be muscular, and ‘strong’ looking.
With such an enormous list of criteria that men need to meet, in order to fit with society’s idea of an ideal man – coupled with the fact that men often don’t feel comfortable discussing their insecurities, worries and mental health, as a result of these expectations, which are ingrained into their consciousness – it’s no wonder that men have the highest rates of suicide compared to any other group.
Thankfully, now, there is more discussion around men’s mental health, to try to normalise the discussion, and encourage men to discuss and seek help for their problems, in an attempt to address the shocking statistics surrounding men’s suicide and mental health problems,
Years after the guidelines for dealing with the mental health of women, ethnic minorities and other groups were produced by the American Psychological Association, guidelines were finally produced for the treatment and understanding of men’s mental health in 2019, so that men can access psychological help that is tailored to their specific needs.
Some of these guidelines include that psychologists need to recognize that ‘masculinities are constructed based on social, cultural and contextual norms’ and that psychologists should ‘strive to change institutional, cultural and systemic problems that affect boys and men through advocacy, prevention, and education’, among other things that relate specifically to the mental struggles of boys and men.
Though these guidelines – and more comprehensive support, understanding and recognition of men’s issues – are in place, many men still feel unable to seek help, even if they feel it’s there for them to use.
According to Canadian news outlet Global News, 28% of Canadian men thought that their job was at risk if they discussed mental health issues at work, while upwards of 33% thought that they could be overlooked for a promotion if they revealed a mental health problem, and a further 42% worried that colleagues would make negative comments behind their back, if they knew that they struggled with their mental health.
Though the discussion about mental health is being brought forth into the open – and in recent years, particularly the discussion about men’s mental health – there is still a basis for these worries.
Since it has been so ingrained into men from a young age that showing emotion is a sign of weakness, other men within the workplace may be more hesitant to promote someone they know to have a mental health problem – and may perceive this as a sign of weakness.
Though hopefully, as the mental health discussion becomes more and more normalised, and men begin to seek help more often when it’s needed, this won’t continue to be the case. In an ideal future world, speaking to a professional about mental health will be as un-stigmatized as going to a doctor for antibiotics.
In the meantime, if we want to prevent this vicious cycle from repeating itself in the future, we need to look at the role models which we present to young children – boys and girls – and present them with a range of people to look up to, who aren’t afraid to show their emotions, or their stereotypically ‘feminine’ traits.
Furthermore, we all need to think about the language we use towards young boys (and girls), and even men, which puts pressure on them to be a certain way – in nature and in physicality – which may not align with who they are, or who they want to be.
Most importantly, we should teach boys from a young age that it’s normal and healthy to express their emotions and discuss their struggles and difficulties. Moreover, far from being untouchable, grown men can similarly feel the weight of words, and of subliminal messaging.
In short, we – as a society – need to stop trying to force men and women, as well as young boys and girls, into a proverbial box, which is made from the outdated, detrimental expectations associated with the two genders, and let every individual be who they are, regardless of their sex.
We need to propagate these new ideals so that they can replace the old, damaging beliefs and attitudes towards men, which can only serve to make them feel depressed, alone, and undeserving of help.
Lastly, we should remember to ask our male friends, family members and loved ones how they are doing – since they might not be asked often, especially if they’re seen as a strong, stable and unemotional by those around them – and to check in on those who have isolated themselves, or you haven’t seen in a while.
You might just save a life.