Jump to section
Mental health can be difficult for people to talk about. It’s often even more challenging to ask for help, for anyone. But because of societal expectations, men face an even greater stigma when it comes to prioritizing their mental health.
Long-standing stereotypes about what’s appropriate for men and boys have left many without adequate coping mechanisms, no support system, and even fewer examples of how to care for themselves and their emotional well-being.
Unfortunately, this has led to a crisis in men’s mental health, with depression and suicide at record highs for men around the world. Understanding the stigma around men’s mental health is key to learning how to support them — and it's vital to suicide prevention efforts.
The stigma around mental health for men
In many societies around the globe, men are faced with a long list of expectations. As the “provider” figure in relationships and families, they are taught to be fearless, capable, tough, and never show doubt, hurt, or pain.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with being tough or capable. But these traits don’t exist in the absence of other emotional skills — nor are they exclusive to people who identify as male. What people are (theoretically, at least) trying to teach is that men should be able to handle anything and keep going — and that can be extremely damaging.
We don’t want to teach people that pushing ahead, regardless of your well-being and without support, is healthy. What we want people to develop is resilience, and that doesn’t mean being brave and tough no matter what. Resilient people are not unaffected by life’s challenges. They are able to draw on both inner and outer resources to process and recover from setbacks.
What is toxic masculinity?
Toxic masculinity is the narrative that stereotypically male behaviors and values (strength, dominance, control, and invulnerability) are the only “real,” “right,” or “desirable” way to be a man. It does not mean that all males are inherently bad, sexist, or problematic. Anyone, regardless of gender identity, can have problematic perceptions of masculinity or engage in toxic behavior.
Research indicates that people of all sexual identities and genders are harmed by toxic masculinity and gender stereotypes. They have a particularly damaging effect on the mental health of gay men, who deal with both the personal and systematic fallout of this toxicity. It perpetuates rape culture, domestic violence, and substance abuse issues while making it harder for men to get support in these areas. And it further compounds the damaging stereotype of men as unfeeling, hardened, stoic, and therefore having no use for mental health services.
The struggles for men of color
Men of diverse ethnic backgrounds face additional stigma in both identifying and seeking treatment for mental health. The challenge is a multilayered one, involving systemic and cultural barriers. For one, economic inequalities make it difficult for people of color to have consistent access to affordable mental health care. Of the people who are able to get mental health treatment, research shows that they receive more “appropriate and effective care” from providers of color — who are sorely underrepresented in the medical community.
Mental health for people of color is further taxed by race-based crimes. Last year, the Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community were the targets of hate crimes fueled by political mishandling of the coronavirus. This is far from the first time that people of Asian descent have been subject to abuse based on race. Such treatment damaged community-wide feelings of safety and belonging — already taxed by social distancing and the pandemic.
In the Black community, as Dr. Octavio N. Martinez Jr. writes, “Men and boys of color are well aware that they are seen as problems first and people second.” This is evident in the over-policing and over-incarceration of the African-American community, and especially Black men. In 2020, when attention on the Black Lives Matter movement was at an all-time high, Black people reported higher feelings of anxiety and increased symptoms of depression.
However, increased societal pressure doesn’t make it easier to reach out for help. People of color are also historically mistrustful of authority figures and medical professionals. Coupled with horrific abuses of people of color and poorer outcomes for medical treatment when they do receive help (not always, but often enough to warrant attention), people of color are far less likely to seek and receive adequate mental health care — with devastating results.
How can we help to reduce the stigma?
Reducing the stigma around men’s mental health must start with education. Many of the factors that affect emotional and psychological well-being are as subtle as they are systemic. It’s necessary to root out and address problematic assumptions that contribute to a negative and unhelpful view of mental health.
Here are some ideas for reducing the stigma around men’s mental health:
1. Create a new understanding of masculinity
Examples are powerful. Have discussions with people in your community or organization about what masculinity looks like. Pay special attention to stereotypes or commonly held beliefs that may run counter to the culture you want to create at work. Ask for examples of behaviors that are important for people, regardless of gender. This can help reframe certain beliefs as values that matter, not “masculine” and “feminine.”
2. Engage with people on both a community and individual level
An article on mental health interventions in the Black community stresses the importance of working with people in groups as well as individually. Group therapy can be especially powerful for breaking down stigma, since talking to others about personal experiences can help normalize and validate them. These support groups can also be helpful in sharing resources, developing new coping skills, and highlighting individual differences within the larger community.
3. Be careful not to reward or punish specific behaviors
Every workplace has a different culture. Whether overtly or inadvertently, these established cultures reinforce certain ways of being, thinking, and acting. Take a look at your company culture. Are you reinforcing certain traditionally male behaviors — like hyper-competitiveness — that may be harmful or toxic? Are you discounting healthy behaviors? For example, you may find that you promote based on individual performance and dismiss positive outcomes from group projects.
4. Address the mental health stigma directly
Mental health and wellness is about more than just treating illness. But more often than not, people associate conversations about emotional and cognitive health with mental illness. And no one wants to be seen -- by loved ones, colleagues, or healthcare professionals -- as someone with "mental health problems." This can make it scary to reach out for any kind of support, since even looking into mental health resources can make you feel like you're "crazy."
But just as our physical fitness is about more than just not being sick, our mental fitness is about more than not having a mental health condition. And it's possible to be emotionally and mentally fit even with a diagnosed condition. Mental health care is self-care. Being proactive about help-seeking and treatment options isn't a sign of weakness or insanity -- it's smart.
A psychiatric diagnosis is not the same as a mental health issue. Issues arise when symptoms are left untreated, and they fester like physical wounds. Changing how we see and talk about mental health help is a critical part of addressing the prevalence of untreated mental health conditions in American men.
When is it time to ask for help?
While it’s important to address men’s mental health at a collective level, it’s also important to prioritize mental fitness in individuals. Men are at high risk for substance abuse and suicide, often stemming from untreated and unrecognized mental health concerns. If you recognize these signs in yourself or anyone else, reach out for professional support immediately:
- Sadness, hopelessness, or listlessness
- Lack of motivation
- Unprovoked anger, irritability, or any violent outburst
- Increased substance use
- Changes in eating and sleeping patterns
- Thoughts of self-harm, suicide, or harming others
If you’re feeling depressed, stressed, emotionally tired, or in crisis and need to speak with someone immediately, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255). They answer every call, and they’re available 24/7.
Silence breeds the stigma
Changing the stigma around mental health, especially for men, is not quiet work. But for those who speak up first, it can take a lot of bravery and self-awareness. You don’t have to do that work alone. Every time you reach out to a professional — or even a friend — for support, you make it easier for others to do the same and make your foundation a little bit stronger.
BetterUp Staff Writer