How Changing Masculinity Is Good For Mental Health

This piece by Ronan O’Shea was originally published on Talkspace.

Men are statistically less likely than women to seek help for mental health and to celebrate Men’s Health Week we’re highlighting issues specifically related to men and their mental health.

There’s a scene at the beginning of Anchorman when the narrator talks about the seventies, a time when, “only men were allowed to read the news.”

It’s said in earnest, in a deep, booming voice, and you get the impression the man behind the mic longs for that lost, halcyon era. It’s also meant to be a joke. The kind of thing we laugh about now because the character the film goes on to lionize is quite clearly a jackass. Burgundy’s misogyny and toxic masculinity is something we look back on almost fondly because we imagine we’ve progressed beyond his willful ignorance.

Of course, toxic masculinity has a ways to go before it disappears. There remains a huge number of men driven by insecurity and a mix of hatred and fear of women. It would be foolhardy to swaddle ourselves in the belief that gender issues are a thing of the past in our society.

As Dr. Laura King, an associate professor of Modern British History at Leeds University who focuses on family and gender history, states, “In my own area of fatherhood and family life, men’s identities were and still largely are premised on the idea of financial provision for children, educating and disciplining them, playing with them. Some of the things men do have changed…but the key tenets of masculinity remain quite consistent.”

These more traditional forms of masculinity, however, can have a toxic impact on mental health. A study from Indiana University Bloomington found that men who exhibit stereotypically masculine behaviors show, “poorer mental health and less favorable attitudes towards seeking psychological help.”

The study looked at 11 norms that they believed to be associated with what society views as masculine traditionally. Of those 11 norms, most showed a negative association with mental health. The three that showed the highest correlations included: sexual promiscuity, self-reliance, and power over women.

Masculinity still plays a huge part in our society whether we like it or not, and there is still much work to do before even the idea that a man has to be the breadwinner shifts. Take this video, for example (ignore the fact the guy has a bag on his head).

The point he makes is apt and many young men still adhere to the same masculine ideals their parents’ generation did. With changes in the way the world works (the workplace, politics), these ideas are outmoded at best and dangerous at worst. It doesn’t have to be this way, however.

With the world gradually changing and social and working roles shifting, men both don’t need to be and shouldn’t be the kind of figure they once were. In fact, a more modern, nuanced understanding can open up a world of possibility to men struggling with mental health issues.

Just as the more traditionally masculine men exhibited poorer mental health scores, a study published in the Clinical Psychology Review shows that reframing a more fluid masculinity to integrate depression may boost help-seeking.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with holding on to certain aspects of traditional masculinity, but the cliche of the strong, silent type is an outdated one that does nobody any favors. Moreover, it’s clear from statistics that men are bearing the brunt of their own silence when it comes to depression and anxiety and — though there are a raft of factors that play into mental health issues for men — the changing perception of what men should do when they need help (speak up and ask for it) offers a glimmer of hope.

Modern, progressive masculinity (at least in certain parts of the world and among certain demographics) is one embracing of a more open, healthier approach to being a man in 2017 – one that isn’t afraid of emotion, one that demands gender equality and disdains the worst excesses of aggressive male behavior. This masculinity recognizes the dire consequences of suffering in silence, not only for the self, but for friends and loved ones affected by one’s mental illness. This changing masculinity recognizes the benefits of therapy and isn’t afraid of initializing self-improvement.

Sure, it’s definitely not the case that all men adhere to this view (read the comments on any piece published online about or by a woman), but progress is slowly moving things in the right direction.

What’s needed now is an openness — not just among those who subscribe to a more modern view of masculinity that allows for vulnerability, gender equality, and social change — but a discussion (a grown-up, honest, respectful one) with those who still hold on to an outmoded view of themselves.

Because, for all the outreach about opening up and talking (in Britain, where I live, there have been many social media campaigns about mental health openness) there is still much work to do before we truly alter the views we have about what it means to be a man.

In essence, we still have a long way to go before the Ron Burgundys of this world fully disappear from our society and we can go back to laughing at those films as a relic of the past rather than a thudding, ongoing hangover in our present.

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