When it comes to mental health, those who identify as men are so often told to, ‘man up’, ‘grow a pair’, ‘don’t be such a girl’. From childhood, many of us have heard these phrases thrown around, with little or no thought as to the harm this stereotyped terminology can cause.
In this article, Lucie Ironman, Psychological Wellbeing Facilitator, Vita Health Group, investigates the archaic language of male mental health, why this may prevent men from speaking out, and how people can support men when they express emotion.
The harm of stereotyping
It is commonly known that the rate of male suicide is higher than women’s – three times more likely in fact. Whilst it is difficult to pinpoint the exact reason why this is the case, research by Samaritans suggests that societal expectations of the ‘role’ of a male – to be strong, to provide, to support – have a huge impact on mental health. This idealised view is one that requires men to not feel, share emotion, or admit to struggling or needing help.
Indeed, this stigma goes some way in explaining why men are much less likely to reach out for support and access mental health services. Research has shown that only 36% of mental health referrals are for men. It also begs the question, if men are supposedly doing all the providing and supporting, who is providing and supporting them?
Mental health does not discriminate.
Typically, we are biologically the same – there or thereabouts. We are all born with a brain and therefore all have mental health. Mental health is after all simply the health of the mind.
There appears to be a common notion that not all individuals can experience mental health difficulties. Everyone has a mind and therefore everyone is on this mental health continuum purely and simply because they are human and can experience emotions.
Without doubt, men are not exempt and study after study proves that; one in eight men have a common mental health problem; men are nearly three times more likely than women to become alcohol dependent; our own research has shown that more than 50% of fathers felt overwhelmed by changes in life due to the COVID-19 pandemic; the Google search volume for ‘men’s mental health charity’ has increased by 40%, I could go on…
How toxic language impacts mental health
Mental health can manifest in many symptoms and behaviours, including (but not limited to) irritability, reckless behaviour, alcohol or drug misuse or the practice of escapist behaviour, such as spending a lot more hours working or obsessing over a hobby.
These behaviours are often a sign that someone is burying their head, along with their mental health, in the sand. But do we ever stop to ask ourselves why this might be the case? Why this individual, who may be a colleague, employee or loved one, does not want to confront their emotions or accept their struggle?
We can find some of the answers in the way we have been brought up and the attitudes we have experienced, towards mental health and wellbeing. The toxic language attached to the mental health of men, ‘crying like a girl’, ‘man up’, ‘grow a pair’ invalidates how an individual may be feeling and insinuates that it is a weakness to not quickly and silently deal with emotions.
These phrases worm themselves into our belief systems, and they can alter our perceptions and the way that we view and interpret the world for our entire lives. I cannot help but wonder how many of those men that took their lives were due to their perception that they could not reach out for support because they needed to ‘man up’ or ‘grow a pair’.
We must stop and take note of the impact this type of language is having on those who identify as male and consciously change our approach to how we talk about male mental health. Irrelevant of gender, societal status, or identity, it is critical men are not made to feel ashamed to look after their mental health, in the same way that they would not hesitate to engage in rest-and-recuperation for a broken bone.
Lucie Ironman is a psychological well-being facilitator for Vita Health Group. Lucie has been working and volunteering in the mental health and wellbeing sector for the past seven years.