Social norms are powerful and many of these are established from a very young age. The way we talk, behave, dress and even the things we allow ourselves to feel are often so deeply embedded that we may not be aware of them. I can especially remember being told how I should or should not behave, and what was perceived as “manly.” As boys, the things we read, watched on TV, or saw on the movies constantly reinforced the characteristics of a “real man." And as far I can tell, not a great deal has changed.
Yes, there is now scope for a broader definition of masculinity but essentially real men still don’t complain, they continue to “suck it up," they work through it, they don’t cry — and they 'don’t get depressed.'
This raises a dilemma for many men in that they may not agree with the “real man” stereotype, but they feel obliged, at some level, to go along with it. Perhaps it’s partly because they believe this is what other men want. Who can imagine Ray Donovan, or James Bond, or any number of other celebrated, fictional representatives of manhood discussing sensitive issues?
These characters are popular precisely because they represent an exaggeration of the male stereotype. If these characters feel down, they take themselves off to their room with a bottle of whiskey and close the door. But this behaviour isn’t helpful to men in real life.
I like to think that things are starting to change a little. Occasionally, a story like this in the London Evening Standard, about rejecting masculine stereotypes, suggests that the old ways have less of a grip on the younger generation of men. However, it isn’t hard to find material that demonstrates the opposite. In the article, Real Men Don’t Say “Cute,” researchers found that we’re only too willing to ascribe gender stereotypes on the basis of simple information. Using Twitter as their data source, they found people make all kinds of assumptions based just on what they read. For example, almost every woman who posted about science or technology was believed to be a man.
Language is important. Professor Steve Robertson is co-director of the Center for Men’s Health at Leeds Beckett University in the UK. He suggests that our health services and many of the health images portrayed are feminised. Male sensitive language, Robertson suggests, is key to getting men to engage more fully with their mental health. Male sensitive terms such as “coaching” rather than “therapy” is an example, but there is still a need for a much bigger cultural shift.
Because men remain less inclined to acknowledge, or perhaps even realise they are experiencing depression, it’s difficult to get a fully representative idea of the scale of the problem. What statistics are available make for sad reading. The American Psychological Association (APA) reveals that white males over the age of 85 have the highest suicide rate of any demographic group in the United States. In fact, 51 out of every 100,000 men in this category commit suicide each year. The reasons may be mixed but it doesn’t stretch the imagination to see how mental health issues must play a key role. Overall, the suicide rate among men is four times higher than among women . The APA also cites data from the National Health Interview Survey (2010-13) indicating nine percent of men experienced daily feelings of depression or anxiety.
The notion that depression is a woman’s problem is still pervasive. However, there is no such thing as a “woman’s depression”: there is just depression. The notion of emotional fragility in a man who is used to competition, power, authority and success can be hard to swallow. Yet getting help in the early stages can make all the difference between learning how to cope and adapt, and being drawn into a vicious cycle of increasing depression. The first step is to acknowledge that depression is a disease and that it does not discriminate between men and women. If men can accept that the truth of a disease process is very different than the myths underpinning manliness, it will be a big step in the right direction for men’s health.
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Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.