Men’s Mental Health: Don't Man up, Speak up
Men’s mental health can be a real concern. It’s common for men to suffer in silence, to believe they need to act stoically, to play the tough guy, when all they need is help.
This has serious ramifications. By 'manning up', we deny our feelings and opportunities for growth and healing.
Men’s mental health – The statistics
Around one in eight men in the UK have mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). This probably doesn’t paint a full picture, however. Because of a culture of ‘manning up’ and not talking about feelings, not making themselves vulnerable, a lot of men suffer in silence. They don’t seek diagnoses and symptoms go underreported.
There are a few statistics that show us the scale of the problem. They hint at there being far more than one in eight men with mental health concerns.
For example, three times as many men as women commit suicide. Men in their forties represent the highest suicide rates in the UK. It is the biggest killer of men under thirty-five years old.
It’s common for men to report lower levels of life satisfaction than women, per the UK government’s national well-being survey. They are far likelier than women to end up sleeping rough, going missing, or becoming dependent on addictive substances.
However, men are a lot less likely than women to seek psychological therapies in the UK. Women are far more likely to be diagnosed with common mental illnesses. However, research suggests that men are far less likely to seek help, to speak up. Men make up just 36% of all NHS talking therapy referrals.
Then there are less common mental health concerns, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and personality disorder. As a society, we are becoming more aware of these conditions. The stereotypes are falling away. However, we still have work to do. As sufferers and potential patients, we need to speak up, to tell our stories and seek the help we need to continue this trend.
Why is men’s mental health going under the radar?
Why are so many men neglecting their mental health?
Or rather, why are they allowing their mental health to go unobserved and untreated?
In a word, masculinity itself could be to blame (see more on this below). Masculinity is entrenched – it is there in the heroes we grew up watching (He-Man had the power; he never made himself vulnerable). It is there in our role models, in literature, all around us.
It is there every time somebody tells us to ‘man up’.
Societal and traditional gender roles can play a big part. Many men are told to ‘man up’. Many of us have probably said it unthinkingly to someone else at some point. The idea that men have to be strong and silent can be very damaging. The idea that to show weakness is unmanly, and that mental health concerns are a weakness, comes into this. Men are meant to be dominant and in control, which most men simply aren’t (and shouldn’t have to be!)
Masculinity and vulnerability
We don’t need to look too far into gender studies and the masculine psyche. Simply considering the word ‘man up’ in the context of the stats on men’s mental health is enough to show us what we need to know.
Masculinity can be a hindrance to well-being if handled incorrectly.
What do you think of when you think of the word ‘masculine?’ A few images come to mind. Aggressive traits such as competitiveness, assertiveness, and boldness are there. Physical strength, high sexual appetites, and other testosterone-fuelled traits are there. A wall can go up, a barricade around each man which keeps them secure, which allows them to ‘be men’.
Boys are raised with these traits. ‘Man up’, they shout at us, and we stop crying, we stop showing weakness, and we play down our emotions. We repress traditionally feminine traits – like gentleness, kindness, sensitivity, awareness of our feelings, and nurturing impulses – so that we can be better men.
Did anyone ever see Clark Gable cry?
What we are taught
British comedian, actor and writer Robert Webb put it very well in his best-selling memoir, How Not to be a Boy. In it, he shows the pitfalls of growing up being told ‘don’t cry, play rough, don’t talk about feelings.’ Being told to man up, to Webb, meant being told not to feel. This left him unprepared for the emotional gamut life puts us through – for him, he was unable to process the grief he felt at seventeen when his mother died.
Grayson Perry puts it well. Masculinity is an aspirational ideal. As men, we are meant ‘to chase things and fight things.’ This is incompatible with emotion – emotions have no use, here. For Perry, we need to eradicate this stereotype if we are to find a healthy emotional space.
Women suffer from these same concerns. Many people are aspirational – we all chase after what we want and try to move forever forwards. Most people repress emotions, not having venues in which to explore them, not wishing to. However, we are taught to do this as men. We have been taught ‘to wear a complete lack of self-awareness as a badge of pride’, to quite Webb once more.
Strength and men’s mental health
Many men consciously or unconsciously, therefore, find themselves repressing their emotions. They will do without them, and ignore them as if to do so is to fit an ideal. They achieve masculinity – no crying, no talk about feelings, no opening up.
Men ‘man up’, in short.
This is insulting to both men and women. If we think of emotional displays as weak and attribute them to women, what are we saying about women?
On the one hand, we are denying men the right to feel pain. On the other, we are saying that women must feel pain, that it is their place to, and we are judging them for it.
It is also ridiculous and self-defeating. Strength doesn’t come from limiting your self-awareness and repressing emotional pain. It is empowering to address these concerns, to face your problems, understand them, and to know yourself as well as you possibly can. Strength follows from this empowerment.
We are, after all, talking about mental health. What is better suited to giving you strength than being healthy?
Toxic strength and men’s mental health
Strength can come from facing your demons. However, this works with the idea that being strong is inherently a good or important thing. But is it? Strength doesn’t matter very much. Why do you have to be strong? Peace and happiness come from this empowerment. Self-acceptance comes from it. This is far more valuable to your mental well-being than any notion of strength.
Stop worrying so much about being this or that – strong or healthy, powerful or forward-moving. Just learn who you are, know yourself a little better, and allow yourself the space you need in which to heal.
How to view men’s mental health
There are two ways to look at men’s mental health and the figures above. One is quite dispiriting. It can seem like there is little hope against the kind of bleak statistics with which we started. On the other hand, men’s mental health is starting from such an underexplored position that it should be relatively easy to make profound changes.
A lot of this is generational, of course. This is another point of hope. Think of your grandparents’ generation. Did your grandad ever open up about his feelings? Did your dad? And now, do you? Do you want to teach your children – our sons, the men of the future – to?
Thinking about this, it’s likely that you see a pretty decent line of best fit, of sorts. The strong silent type is being eroded. Men are beginning to open up. If we can keep this positive trajectory going and help men, including ourselves, to open up more, then the statistics above could look very different in just a few years.
Where to take this
Tackling men’s mental health – or anyone’s mental health, for that matter – isn’t some arcane process. It is simply tackling an aspect of your well-being in the same way you would tackle any other.
If you fractured your arm, you hopefully wouldn’t ‘man up’ and ignore it. You also wouldn’t think it anything to be ashamed of. You wouldn’t ignore the symptoms of pneumonia or the warning signs of cancerous growth. Nor would any diagnosis or treatment plan come with any kind of stigma attached.
Treat mental health the same way. If you have a problem, talk about it. Seek out a diagnosis if it’s appropriate. Do what you need to do to fix or, to alleviate symptoms, to bolster your health.
There is always help available. Speak to your friends, family, or healthcare provider if you have any concerns about your mental well-being. Not doing so could help to continue this trend. Doing so – singly and, as men, collectively – can bring about real, positive change.
Don’t ‘man up’. Don’t lock your feelings, emotions and mental health concerns out.
- Men and mental health - https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/explore-mental-health/a-z-topics/men-and-mental-health
- Our best mental health tips backed by research https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/explore-mental-health/publications/our-best-mental-health-tips