For International Men's Day, Durham University PHD student Michael Priestley, shares his experiences of how gender norms can impact on men's mental health help-seeking behaviours, experiences, and literacy.
In thinking about how gender norms impact on men's mental health, it is important to acknowledge that men, like women, are a diverse group and that multiple factors will shape this relationship- such as class, race, and sexuality. I write therefore from my own mental health experiences as a man, and cannot speak for all men.
I understand gender roles as both learned and performed; I act as a man in different ways in different contexts as shaped by the different models of masculinity that I see around me. I see one particularly dominant model of masculinity as follows. Men, as opposed to women: 1) Don't talk about or show emotions; 2) Are brave and physically strong; 3) Have sex with women and 4) Drink beer. Stick to these simple rules society tells us, and we'll all be fine. But will we? Research shows men to be at an increased risk of certain mental health difficulties and death by suicide, and are significantly less likely than women to seek help for their mental health from professionals, friends, or family. In this context, and drawing on my own experiences, I suggest that these dominant gender norms may impact on men's mental health in three main ways:
1) Gender Norms Can Impact on Men's Help-Seeking:
Clearly, if men don't talk about or show emotions and if men are brave and strong, this can make it hard as a man to openly acknowledge and admit that you are struggling with your mental health and ask for help.
2) Gender Norms Can Impact on Men's Emotional Experiences:
As a man, in trying not to show difficult emotions such as sadness, embarrassment, or fear, you can end up trying not to feel these emotions which, in turn, can change the way that you understand, articulate, and experience them. For me, instead of experiencing feelings of sadness or anxiety as something that could be related to my mental health, for which I should probably get help, at the time, I experienced these feelings only as confusion, frustration, or anger with the events or people in my life. Not only this, but by repressing and avoiding how I was actually feeling, these feelings built up to a boiling point and I ended up expressing them in ways that were destructive, both for myself and for others around me.
3) Gender Norms Impact on Men's Mental Health Literacy
If men don't talk about or show emotions, it can become difficult for men to develop a language in which to express or understand difficult emotions. The problem then is that when men do feel them, they can feel ill-prepared and under-equipped to understand and share these with others, forcing many men into silence and isolation to deal with problems alone.
The point is that, from my experience, not only do gender norms create conditions where it is hard for men to speak up and ask for help for their mental health, they also condition men's emotional experiences and language in ways that, in the long term, can have a negative impact on mental health. In isolation, simply telling men to talk more (whilst obviously very important!), can be an oversimplification of the complex social processes that influence the way that men understand and experience emotion. As a society, we need to develop other models of masculinity, but in the meantime, we also need a new language for recognising, understanding, and responding to men's distinctive mental health experiences as situated within, and mediated by, social gender norms.
These ideas were initially shared as part of an International Men's Day panel discussion organised by Changing Relations at Durham University.