19 June 2015

Currently, a narrow and restricted definition of ‘what it means to be a man’ is presented and reinforced to men and boys, by society.

Are you man enough?
Currently, a narrow and restricted definition of ‘what it means to be a man’ is presented and reinforced to men and boys, by society. This is having a direct and harmful impact on men’s mental health and risk of suicide.

The arrival of Men’s Health Week brings with it an opportunity to think and reflect on any number of issues related to men and their health. I’d like to use the opportunity to talk about a key issue that has a profound effect on both the physical and mental health of men, one that isn’t talked about enough. That is the issue of masculinity. 

We know that men tend to compare themselves against a masculine ideal which values power, strength, control and invincibility. This is something that is played out across multiple touch points in a man’s life, from being told at an early age to ‘man up and don’t cry’ in the playground, to the tough guy heroes portrayed in TV and films, to telling your mates in a joking way to “harden the f**k up”.  Throughout their lives, society teaches our boys that they need to act tough, show strength and, effectively, be invincible. 

Unfortunately, the popular notion of what it is to be a man today can have a devastating effect on an individual’s mental health and well-being. As a society, we’ve attached ourselves to an unhealthy image of what is a “real man”, grounded in outdated perceptions created in the 1940s through to the 1970s. 

The world has significantly changed and so must our definition of what it is to be a man. The issue of how we define masculinity is not a gender specific problem; it has implications for both men and women. In order to address this issue in a meaningful way, everyone needs to play a role. 

When men believe they are not meeting the standards set for them by society, they can feel a sense of shame and defeat. We know that men are often more reluctant than women to talk about their feelings and less likely to acknowledge the impact of significant life events, such as relationship breakdowns, loss of a job, financial difficulties, or becoming a father on their mental health. 

One of the reasons for this is because of the masculine ideal, which is that men should be in control, and never depressed, anxious or unable to cope.  The very experience of being distressed or having a mental health problem can be psychologically difficult for men to accept because, according to our societal precepts, they are not supposed to be vulnerable in this way. As a result, too many men are suffering mental illness in silence, unable to ask for help for fear it would make them less of a man. In these situations, suicide can become a valid, possibly rational option for men when coping alone and keeping control of a situation no seems longer possible.  That’s when suicide can become the ultimate way of exerting control over the situation.

We have a crisis on our hands that no one is talking about. Suicide is a leading killer of men between 20 to 50 years old; in some countries eclipsing road accidents, cancer and coronary heart disease.  More service men have taken their lives by suicide than were killed on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan.  One man dies by suicide every minute around the world.

Faced with this, it’s easy to make the argument as to why it’s so important that we start having the conversation about redefining masculinity. The hard part is engaging society in these conversations in a meaningful way and getting individuals to look more closely at the beliefs ingrained in them. Like many things in life, it may not be until you’re challenged that you realize that you are in some way, albeit inadvertently, contributing to the issue, by holding on to an out-dated view of masculinity. 

We need to redefine what it means to be a modern man. We need to build a society where men and boys don’t feel as though they have failed for not living up to the old school masculine ideal. This means encouraging emotional intelligence in future generations. It means that as men, we need to invest time in building strong support networks with our mates and when those moments in life challenge and test us, instead of internalizing things, we talk about it.

It’s not going to be easy and it’s going to take time. It will require all of us to challenge and change what we think, what we contribute and the way we teach boys about masculinity. But the benefits that will come from this shift in attitude will be life-changing and lead to men who are emotionally aware and take action when it comes to their physical and mental health. These positive outcomes will in turn impact the lives of our daughters, sisters, girlfriends, wives, mothers.

As part of our new men’s health strategy, I’m proud to say that we’ve made a commitment to focus on challenging the negative aspects of masculinity and the impact this can have on mental health and suicide.  
Let’s begin the conversation.  What are your thoughts on masculinity and the impact it’s having?

Please note that Professor Steve Robertson from Leeds Beckett University has worked with the Movember Foundation to help shape our men’s health strategies; reflected in this opinion piece.