By understanding men we can understand male suffering.
As per most days, when I clambered out of bed at ridiculous o’clock this morning the first thing I did was to log-in to Facebook. I checked my notifications and one of them was to say that someone had posted into one of the Men’s Groups I’m part of, so naturally I checked it. The post featured a link to an article featured here on elephant journal, titled “The Rules Men Live by are Killing them – Here’s how We can Help.” What certainly caught my eye was that this article was not written for the general public per se, but was targeted for women. This is quite unusual.
I will not delve too deeply into analysing the article, the reader is more than capable of reading it and making up their own mind. But instead, what I really want to do, is to explore in greater detail some of the issues that were discussed. I will, however, still address some of the key points that were raised. Also, I should probably add the disclaimer that because I am a Brit so the majority of my research will be Brit-centric, I hope the reader can afford me that liberty.
Firstly, let us start with the horrifying statistic presented to us at the beginning: “In Australia it’s [suicide] the biggest killer of men under the age of 45. It tops heart disease, cancer, road accidents, and it brings to light a vital problem in our society.” This statistic is also true for here in Britain, just last year there were 6,122 suicides of which 76% were male. Undeniably, something must be going horrendously wrong to be causing this, but what?
Simply put, there is a pressure on men and it can be summated under two umbrella concepts:
- Men must meet a gold standard.
- Men do not count.
For the former, men are being held to a standard that is ever-changing and is one they cannot constantly meet. As Shae correctly put in her article, a man must be strong and capable of holding his woman. He must be conscious and must have done his work, he must be wealthy, emotionally healthy and stable and knows exactly how to hold you. This standard of a man, both in his life and in what he brings into the relationship, is a raw deal for him. This perception is inequitable. Why must it be him who is all these things, why cannot it be both who has these traits? Because men are seen more as agentic and women are seen as communal-expressive, we can justify our harsher expectations and treatment of men, it’s their purpose and duty to be able to take it.
But he also does not count, or at least, that’s how he is treated. He is left to fall behind in school, if he is boisterous or disruptive at school he will be put on psychoactive drugs, he will be one in three victims of Domestic Violence yet barely 2% of spaces in shelters are available to him , if he is raped by a woman the law simply doesn’t recognise it, he will be sentenced harsher by the courts simply for being male, he has approximately 15.8% chance of being genitally mutilated (the law only specifically prohibits female genital mutilation) and the idea of discussing male issues causes Members of Parliament to laugh in derision. If I haven’t made it abundantly clear, men are treated like trash.
This bizarre dichotomy of “you must be what I expect of you but you do not count” of course leaves men confused, but worse than that they are breaking. This insurmountable pressure of being required to meet this gold standard yet then being told they do not matter pushes such a debilitating cognitive dissonance into them. How can we as a society expect men to reconcile with themselves their identity when they are being fed two starkly differing ideas of who they are and what they represent in society?
And so, we find that men do not reach out for help as women do. Is it an inability that is preventing them, or an unwillingness? The reason I ask that question and place the emphasis as I did is because often in discussions of male suicide one of the last sources that people go to for reference is men.
Study after study shows that men employ less help-seeking behaviour than women. One study suggested that this is because of perceptions of masculinity, such as hegemonic masculinity. The idea being that masculinity itself prevents men from seeking help, to quote: “Additional health-related beliefs and behaviours that can be used in the demonstration of hegemonic masculinity include the denial of weakness or vulnerability, emotional and physical control, the appearance of being strong and robust, dismissal of any need for help, a ceaseless interest in sex, the display of aggressive behaviour and physical dominance.” Yet this idea does not take into consideration the biological and evolutionary causes for this form of masculinity, in which men needed to be strong and robust so to be able to work and provide for their family. This traditional masculinity dictates that men must battle through sickness and ill-health so as to be able to feed their young. No provider, no provisions. Therefore it’s no surprise that here in the UK women are 42% more likely to take sick days than men. Men plough on through because they are putting others first and placing their needs last.
There’s also another potential motivator: apathy towards healthcare services. Maybe men don’t seek help from services because they don’t feel like as though they can cater for them. The British Psychological Society has recognised that psychology, as a profession, is perceived as inherently feminised, hence why they see so few men choosing psychology as a career path.
They also recognise that many of the therapies they employ “could be seen as counter to traditional masculine norms, particularly the masculine norms of self-reliance and control over emotions.” They recognise that many of the strategies they incorporate use an empathic approach, which can be perceived and experienced as un-masculine. Relying on an empathic works well for women as they are naturally more empathic (as seen here, here, here, here, here and here), but this does not cater for male psychology.
If you want men to step forward and talk, you need to facilitate the environment for that to happen. Research from the Movember Foundation found that “programmes should ensure they view men as positive assets and use male positive approaches and language as this helps engage and sustain involvement in interventions”. This means that using male positive approaches that included action-based therapy, essentially men doing activities that affirmed their male identity, helped to create an environment where the men felt they could trust those around them and open up. When men feel comfortable -and feel like men- they are much more likely to open up and talk. To put it into Layman’s terms: speak to men like what they are, men.
Every piece I write includes this image (source)
So, to summarise, men do not have it easy. They are pushed into a rut and left without a way out. They refrain from speaking out not because of inability but because of unwillingness. It isn’t just about telling men that #ItsOkayToTalk but also about telling everyone else that #ItsOkayToListen. If we truly want to end the male suicide crisis, we need to recognise that men have problems and that we can do something about it.
Maleness and masculinity are not problems that need to be solved but identities to be embraced. How can we expect men to heal if we treat them as though they are the problem?