Men and Mental Health

As some of my readers know, I’ve had some experiences with intrusive thoughts, which is when one struggles with unwelcome, unpleasant, and upsetting thoughts and ideas. These experiences led me to write about mental health from a faith (Christian faith, more specifically) point-of-view a couple of months ago.

Writing about mental health from a faith perspective is important. However, given the sobering statistic that 77% of those who die by suicide in the United States are men, as well as the fact that we are in the midst of Mental Health Awareness Month, I think it’s important to have a discussion about men and mental health.

The thing about men, at least in the United States, is that we have expectations connected to our gender identity that make it problematic to be open about our mental health. We’re taught to be tough, strong, not show weakness, not be vulnerable, and confident, to name a few. Characteristics required of us in order to improve our mental health when we’re struggling mentally—vulnerability, weakness, seeking help—are not “manly.” Attempts to live up to those ideals of being a man can, if we’re not careful, keep men from opening up to their families, friends, counselors, and therapists (that is, if one gets to the point of getting counseling or seeking therapy—as getting counseling or therapy is seeking help, doing so may not be considered “manly”).

Now, in my case, I thankfully had men AND women in my life who helped me confront those stereotypes about men before I had my bouts of intrusive thoughts. However, I have known other men in my life who’ve struggled with those stereotypes and struggle with mental health at the same time, and I can say this—it’s not easy.

I don’t have all the answers to male suicide rates, but I do think that we need to start by making it okay for men to be vulnerable, and for men to seek help. I think that Olympic Swimmer Michael Phelps’ openness about his own past struggles is admirable and breaks many stigmas about men and mental health, but we need more Michael Phelpses in the world. We need to make it clear that it is okay for everyone, including me, to not always be okay. We need to make it clear that it’s okay for a man to struggle mentally and emotionally, and that it is okay to ask for help with our mental health.

National Suicide Hotline (United States): 1-800-273-8255

International suicide hotlines from the International Bipolar Foundation can be found here.

The Ableism of Western Masculinity

When I, and others, read definitions of what it means to be “masculine” in the western world, we get words like: active, aggressive, ambitious, analytical, assertive, athletic, authoritative, blunt, certain, competitive, decisive, dominant, forceful, independent, individualistic, physical, protective, self-reliant, self-sufficient, strong and tough.

Some of these meanings of masculinity are perfectly okay—being active, ambitious, analytical and certain, for example, can be positive traits in many circumstances.

Other traits are, in my humble opinion, traits that contribute to gender inequality and so many sexual assaults against mostly women—being aggressive, authoritative, dominant, and forceful come to mind. The topic of how some ideas of western masculinity contribute to gender inequality and sexual violence may very well be the subject for a future post, but I won’t cover this in my current one.

And then there are other “masculine” traits such as: active, athletic, independent, physical, self-reliant, self-sufficient, strong, and tough. These traits are ableist, or discriminating in favor of able-bodied people, at least to some extent, because men who have disabilities are then viewed as completely unable to fit these traits of what it apparently means to be a “true man” or “manly enough.”

Consider the following:

  1. If you are a blind person, you don’t fit into some people’s ideas what it means to be masculine. The definition of masculinity includes independence, self-reliance, and self-sufficiency, yet you need to depend on other people, animals or things to guide you.
  2. If you are deaf person, you don’t fit into what some think it means to be masculine. You need to depend on sign language from others or closed caption coming from a machine, so you therefore don’t have the independence, self-reliance, or self-sufficiency associated with masculinity.
  3. If you need a cane to get around (let alone if you’re in a wheelchair), you don’t fit into our society’s idea of what it means to be masculine. Regardless of what your level of activity is (and I know my share of people who are on a cane or in a wheelchair AND are actually quite athletic), you are often viewed as inactive, unathletic, dependent on others and weak if you use a cane or are in a wheelchair.

The bottom line is that if you are a man with some form of disability, that person likely does not fit the definition of masculinity. In fact, because masculinity is ableist, the very ideas associated with modern western masculinity completely exclude men with disabilities the “manliness club.”

So when I hear someone talk about “toxic masculinity,” I agree—masculinity is toxic. The ableism of masculinity makes masculinity inherently toxic.

Note: I want to thank the blog Me, Myself and Disability for bringing this issue to my attention. When I first discovered that blog, I read a post about the author’s own experiences with the ableism of masculinity. If you want to get a more personal perspective on the ableism of western masculinity, I highly recommend that you read his post on the issue.