Men, Depression, and Toxic Masculinity

“Man up”

“Boys don’t cry”

“Be a man”

“Don’t be such a girl”

“Grow up”

“Don’t be such a baby”

“Get over it”

We have all heard these phrases before. Subtle (and not-so-subtle) expressions are often utilized to help create an ideal of masculinity that is characterized by confidence, strength, composure, and success. Popular media including movies, television, and video games have characterized a model of masculinity that has become both pervasive and toxic. The above phrases all equate vulnerability and negative emotion with being deficient and below the masculine ideal.

From early ages, boys are imprinted with the archetype that men do not express emotion as emotion is often viewed as weakness and weakness is wrong. These same young men spread this message to their peers and create a culture afflicted with a dysfunctional pattern of emotional expression. Eventually, these same young men will create families of their own and perpetuate the cycle. However, this cycle often masks an underlying level of pain and distress that goes unheard and buried internally. Today’s men struggle with a cultural identity in which they can appropriately and comprehensively process their experiences and emotions. In turn, these chronic systemic issues can contribute to not only mental illness but diminished quality of life.

Mental Illness is not a new phenomenon in this world. Historically, most people understand the concept of such conditions as “depression” as a cluster of symptoms characterized in popular media including weepiness and extreme sadness which are most often attributed to female characters. These portrayals have often been disingenuous and further stigmatizing. While many people do experience sadness and weepiness, men often express their mental illness through other means which include anger and irritability. Additionally, men often experience loss of interest in hobbies, and physical symptoms such as fatigue and low energy are often primary expressions for men. When men do express these emotions in these same media portrayals, it is often met with expressions to “man up” and spontaneously learn to handle it in the 30-minute time slot of that episode.

Traditional masculinity often struggles from not only poor understanding of emotion, but also dysfunctional expression of negative mood states. Often, men are likely to seek out external methods of coping with their inward pain, which may include over-working, substance use, and angry outbursts that can possibly become abusive. Seeking pleasure in risky behaviors is also common and this can manifest in the form of gambling or promiscuous behavior that are aiming to alleviate negative emotions. Lastly, men are more likely than women to externalize the source of their depression onto life circumstances or relationships (e.g. arguments, sarcasm, berating comments). 1,3

While many men may choose to ignore the presence of such intense emotional experiences, the numbers do not lie. According to APA surveys conducted in 2015, roughly nine percent of men in America report experiencing daily depression and anxiety. Only one-third of men utilized pharmacological interventions and only one-fourth of men sought professional support for their condition. Only thirty percent of men reported feeling depression at some point during their lives on traditional measures of depression, but this number equaled prevalence rates in women when instruments incorporating male-centric depressive symptoms (e.g. rage or risk-taking) were included. Women remain more likely than men to attempt suicide, but men are roughly four times as likely to complete the action due to tendencies toward more lethal means. Finally, men over the age of 85 are four times as likely as any other population group to commit suicide each year. 2

So, what can be done? How do we start the process of developing a more constructive and healthy model of masculinity? It starts with us.

  • Normalizing and de-stigmatizing the experience of depression, particularly with men.3
    1. We all have a context of depression and need to create an ongoing conversation about these conditions. When you see negative portrayals of mental illness in popular media, discuss them with your children and with your friends.
    2. No longer accepting words and phrases that trivialize mental illness such as: “You’re crazy,” “Everyone is a bit OCD,” “You’re retarded”, or “Stop being so bipolar.” Mental illness is more than mom wanting your clothes put away or someone becoming emotional at a given moment. These diagnostic terms are there for help and we should reserve them for those situations.
  • Persevering the dignity of people struggling with mental illness.3
    1. This starts with our language as we transition from talking about a depressed person to talking about a person who is struggling with depression.
    2. Talking about mental illness through behaviors as opposed to characterological deficits helps open communication. Using “I” statements allows the expresser to be assertive without being confrontational. This method of conversation can focus on behavior and choices of the offending person while taking responsibility for the interpretations and personal feelings felt toward the offender. For example, “You are such a mean person lately” can be phrased as, “I understand you are frustrated, but I feel hurt when you yell at me.”
  • Men, we need to start being honest about our depression experiences and there are many places to seek help.3
    1. Individual psychotherapy is an avenue in which a licensed and trained professional can help you better understand your symptoms, express them constructively, and develop healthier coping skills.
    2. Group psychotherapy is immensely helpful for establishing that you are not alone in your experiences and using a group context to help facilitate change.
    3. If anger is a challenge for you, anger management can be a helpful resource to help better manage pain.
    4. Church pastors and counselors can be a vital resource to help establish a healthy masculine culture and provide help for hurting people.
    5. Consult your primary care physician about possible pharmacological interventions that may augment therapeutic support for depressive symptoms.
  • Changing our expectations.3
    1. Often, we excuse negative emotional expressions from men as “boys will be boys” or “he is just being a typical man.” Calling these negative expressions of emotion what they are and working on adopting healthy expressions can help build a culture where we can reinforce healthy emotional experiences.
    2. Expressions of emotion such as crying are normal human expressions and men experience them also.
    3. Encouraging young boys to increase their emotional reasoning and empathy. Understanding the emotions of their peers can help them identify the universality of their experiences.

By addressing these goals, we can help create a newer and more healthy culture for men to express their emotions. However, this change extends far beyond ourselves. Addressing and processing our emotions better equips us to address the emotional needs of our friends, co-workers, partners, and children. Being a more complete provider and partner also includes emotional provision. By establishing a newer model of masculinity, we teach the next generation of young men that emotions are not to be feared or avoided, but are to be harnessed and integrated into our lives and relationships. Fathers can display a model of masculinity and communication that their children can not only emulate but also use to identify and establish healthy and positive relationships with their friends and potential future partners. Lastly, asking for help enables those around us to know that asking for help is not only acceptable but encouraged, and that is it ok to be vulnerable.

Men have long lived with the model of masculinity that we inherited. However, at some point, we should ask ourselves whether this model of masculinity is what allows us to live our lives to the happiest and fullest. Depression and other mental illnesses are common human experiences, and helping you create the freedom to address that experience is precisely what we do at Providence Behavioral Health. Please let us know if we can assist you in this process.

 

“Ask for help not because you’re weak, but because you want to remain strong.” – Les Brown

 

References:

  1. Marano, H. E. (December 2001). The Trouble with Men. Retrieved July 02, 2017, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200112/the-trouble-men.
  2. American Psychological Association. (December 2015). By the Numbers: Men and Depression. Retrieved July 02, 2017, from http://www.apa.org/monitor/2015/12/numbers.aspx.
  3. American Psychological Association. (July 2005). Men: A Different Depression. Retrieved July 02, 2017, from http://www.apa.org/research/action/men.aspx.

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