In this podcast (episode #337) and blog, I am going to talk about the stigma surrounding men’s mental health and what we can do to address the issue on both an individual and collective level.
Mental health affects all kinds of people because mental health is a human issue. However, mental health struggles are commonly overlooked in males. Many men feel the need to hide their mental distress, and they seek mental health help at much lower rates compared with other genders.
Unfortunately, there is still a lot of stigma associated with men’s mental health, which has many real-world repercussions. According to statistics collected by The Mental Health Foundation and Healthline, three times as many men as women die by suicide. Men also report lower levels of life satisfaction than women, and are less likely to access psychological therapies than women. Moreover, The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism puts the annual number of men dying due to alcohol-related causes at 62,000, compared to 26,000 women. Men are also two to three times more likely to misuse drugs than women. In fact, depression and suicide are ranked as a leading cause of death among men, while they’re still far less likely to seek mental health treatment than women.
These statistics highlight the urgent need to better address men’s mental health in our world today. To start doing this, we first need to understand what mental health stigma is. When it comes to stigma in mental health, there are several main categories:
1. Public stigma, which involves any discrimination or negative beliefs other people have regarding the topic of mental health.
2. Self-stigma, which includes the shame and guilt associated with mental health struggles, and/or negative beliefs about oneself and their own mental health.
3. Institutional stigma, or a more systematic type of stigma. This includes the way that social policies are set up to create an environment of stigma and limiting opportunities or acceptance for people with mental illness.
Let’s see how these different types of stigma play out in male mental health:
1. Public Stigma:
In the same way that certain gender roles and stereotypes affect women and are damaging to them, there are some stereotypes that affect men as well. In our society, for instance, men are often expected to be more tough and stronger. They often seen as the protector in many cultures. This is not unequivocally a bad thing. However, it can be toxic when mental struggles are seen as an “abnormalities” or “signs of weakness”—as something that impinges on their perceived role as protectors.
Another cause of public health is our over-reliance on the biomedical model of mental health, as we observed in our recent clinical trials. This model overemphasizes what is “wrong” with someone and their brain based on their symptoms instead of looking at what has happened to them (which includes the socio-cultural context of their story). A person’s unique story and their unique responses also need to be seen as a non-medical, non-pathological, yet understandable human responses to harmful social, relational, political, and environmental conditions.
When the stereotype of what maleness “is” combines with the stereotype that mental health only means something is wrong with the person, it can be extremely harmful and leads to stigma.
This is often where the idea of “toxic masculinity” comes into the picture. When we assume that masculinity is x, any deviation from this acculturated notion can affect how individuals see themselves and their struggles, as well as the struggles of others. This, in turn, can result in limited notions of what it means to be a man, or what mental health should look like for men.
This is often exacerbated by the fact that many men feel isolated and alone with their mental struggles. Research done by the American Journal of Men’s Health found that many men find it quite difficult to establish good or strong social connections, which can contribute to social isolation. This can make many men feel like it is not safe to ask for help or talk openly about their mental health.
The messages we receive about how we should act can have a profound effect on the way we see ourselves within the world. It is therefore not surprising that, as I briefly discussed above, with all the expectations and stereotypes surrounding masculinity in our world today, many men feel like they have little room to open up about their mental health because they may appear weak. In fact, a survey commissioned by the Mental Health Foundation found that not only are men far less likely than women to seek professional support, they are also less likely to disclose a mental health problem to friends and family, which has also been observed other studies.
Many of these surveys and studies highlight the fact that many men are embarrassed about their mental ill health struggles, and may even feel angry and confused that they are struggling because it makes them feel “weak”. These types of thoughts often lead to self-judgment and self-hatred, which often exacerbates their mental health struggles. Other men have expressed that they would like to share their struggles, but they are afraid of the judgment that comes from these stigmas. Consequently, they don’t find the help that they need or deserve to work through their pain.
On the other hand, some studies have observed that “men who can’t speak openly about their emotions may be less able to recognize symptoms of mental health problems in themselves, and less likely to reach out for support.” This research highlights the fact that if men feel that there is not much space in society for them to truly open and honest about their struggles, they are less likely to tune into their own mental ill health struggles.
3. Institutional stigma:
Actual health policies can impact social standards and norms, which, in turn, can create an environment of stigma that impacts men’s mental and physical wellbeing.
This is especially the case for men of color. According to The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), “Black people are 20 percent more likely to have serious psychological distress than whites”, while other studies“show that African Americans are only half as likely as white people to get treatment for their mental disorders”. Men of color are often hesitant to talk about their mental health problems due to the institutional stigma they face daily. And, if they do recognize their issues, they may fear that talking about them makes them look weak. Based on past experiences and stigma, they may also think that no one cares about their mental health.
We seriously need to change the narrative! There needs to be more advocacy for policy changes that create safe environments for men, including men of color, to speak about their mental struggles. Some recommendations for steps forward from the APA include:
- Making space for clients to identify racist incidents that they have experienced and the feelings that arise because of them, and, more important, to understand and work toward overcoming internalized racism.
- Psychologists developing a deeper understanding of racism and its impacts by keeping abreast of the latest scholarship, taking continuing-education classes, and getting training in the area.
There must also be a major cultural shift, one that makes space for men to express their emotions. Notions of masculinity need to be redefined to allow for true human expression. By talking about the stigma men face with their own mental health, and by acknowledging each other’s struggles more, we can foster an environment where people can empathize with each other—an environment where men don’t feel so alone with their pain and where they recognize that many other men are also going through a difficult mental health journey. Indeed, if more men talk about the struggles they have overcome, this will also create an environment where others will feel more free to share their own pain.
If you are worried about your own mental health, realize that you are not alone. You are human, and what you are experiencing is real and valid—it does not make you any less of a person. If you are struggling, reach out to someone you love and trust. Once you tell that first person, the idea of opening up to others will feel much less daunting. We are all human, and we all have an amazing ability to help each other!
For more on men’s mental health, listen to my podcast (episode #337), and check out my latest book Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess and app Neurocycle. If you enjoy listening to my podcast, please consider leaving a 5-star review and subscribing. And keep sharing episodes with friends and family and on social media. (Don’t forget to tag me so I can see your posts!).
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1:06 Mental health is a human issue
1:20 Men’s mental health: what do the statistics tell us?
3:00 What is mental health stigma?
3:30 The limits of seeing mental health as a brain disease
6:15, 15:11 The different types of mental health stigma & their effects
18:30 Men’s mental health & racism
19:25 Deaths of despair
21:20 How we can reduce the stigma associated with men’s mental health
This podcast and blog is for educational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice. We always encourage each person to make the decision that seems best for their situation with the guidance of a medical professional.