This Men’s Mental Health Awareness Day, have the conversation no one else is
Typewriter Day. Onion Rings Day. Clean Your Aquarium Day. The days of the year designated to seemingly arbitrary causes are so inexhaustible that they’ve started to double and triple up. Case in point, today is Men’s Mental Health Awareness Day in Canada and International Axe Throwing Day, which too tellingly sounds decidedly lumberjacky (read hyper “manly”). It’s easy to glibly roll an eye and scoff out a “why is this even a day?” Eye Roll Day is actually May 3rd by the way, so you missed it. I’ve nothing against hurling forestry tools in a safe environment but normalizing the conversation around men’s mental health sans eye-roll and stigma will, not to put too fine an axe tip on it, save lives – so I’m leaning that way. If gendering a mental health awareness day seems unnecessarily divisive to you, consider that the socially driven silence often stifling men from seeking help when they need it most yields an unpleasant stat: men are four times more likely to die by suicide than women in Canada and those numbers have been climbing for a decade. A recent study shows that the dark data points to one salient cause – toxic masculinity.
The term, a buzzy word that’s been floating around for awhile, is most often used in feminist circles. It’s shorthand for the poisonous paradigm in which we raise boys to deny any human emotion that isn’t linked to aggressive power. At its core, it’s a “boys don’t cry” model where stoicism and solitary strength are the very height of masculine virtue. If you haven’t heard of toxic masculinity before, this trailer for the documentary film The Mask You Live In should give you a better sense:
The most extreme markers of masculinity also enforce a “might is right” dogma that is fiercely damaging (for everyone). What’s more, research proves that toxic masculinity doesn’t just hurt women, it hurts men too.
Dr Joel Wong has found a definitive link between clichéd machismo and poor mental health in men. I suspect many mindful men may be unphased by that revelation. But after leading researchers at Indiana University Bloomington in analyzing data of nearly 20,000 participants (a synthesis of 78 studies) Wong says his team’s findings are definitive. “It supports and confirms research done in the last 60 years that people who conform to masculinity have poor mental health.” The hard truth is that manning up is tearing people down and we’ve had a sense of it for decades.
Researchers found that both mental health and the tendency to seek out appropriate help dropped based on adherence to societal masculine norms. Eleven traits (some more upsetting than others) best identified the hyper-manly norms Wong used as benchmarks. The wince inducing “male” traits are as follows: winning, emotional control, risk-taking, violence, dominance, playboy, self-reliance, primacy of work, power over women, and disdain for homosexuals. Anecdotal proof: for fear of being bullied, my best bud in high school refused to eat bananas in the cafeteria – phallic foods never escaped a hazing. Putting a pin in violence and homophobia for now, note that three of Wong’s tested traits stood out more than the rest. Sexual promiscuity, self-reliance, and power over women were most categorically linked to frail mental health.
Part of the issue is that in playing up to these toxic ideals over a lifetime, men can lose touch with their actual feelings, harming themselves and others but also misinterpreting or manifesting emotional suffering as physical. Dr. Michael Myers, Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at SUNY-Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn says, “In men, mental illness can be masked. We’ve known for decades that women are more apt to recognize illness of any sort and go to their doctor. This doesn’t mean women are healthier, but that some men just repress it. We believe a lot of somatization [symptoms] in men, for example, migraines, back pain, irritable bowel syndrome, is rooted in depression.” Myers also confirms that untreated depression often gets acted out in men in the form of marked hostility, binge drinking, and womanizing. At its worst, depression breeds violence, both verbal and physical. That violence is also often turned inward. On average, eight men commit suicide every day in Canada with single and divorced men over 40 being most at risk.
Self-medicating depressive or anxious feelings with drugs and alcohol is also common for men who are suffering. But one study linked alexithymia (a cognitive disorder marked by an inability to identify or express emotional states) with men prone to substance abuse. More than half, 53% of them, met the criteria for alexithymia. Difficult emotions get stuffed or drowned well past the point of health. Still, many men’s health campaigns suggest making time to go for that beer – the takeaway being “go easy on the pints, heavy on the time spent connecting with a pal”. When PSA campaigns are needed to broadcast the idea to men that it’s okay to talk openly, there is an issue that needs addressing. Isolation, which as an important aside nearly triples the incidence of cardiovascular disease, is yet another factor that complicates the arena of men’s mental health.
Although the conversation is changing, the way we (women and men) sometimes socialize boys can lead to a noxious shutting down of emotion that sets the stage for withdrawal – not just from others, but from their own feelings. Prince Harry recently spoke out about an inability to properly mourn his mother’s death for nearly two decades before being forced by his brother, Prince William, to seek help after his textbook destructive behaviour became unmanageable. The effects of punishing vulnerability and rewarding aggression from an early age are unforgiving and science is finally catching up with that. Thankfully that science is trickling down and the rest of the world and taking note to. High profile celebrities are more vocal than ever about mental wellness. Recognize today as day for checking in on the men in your life and using your voice to cultivate a cultural detox. If you need a butch excuse to spend some time, so be it. Throw an axe at a bullseye together. Without sacrificing safety, focus on the detox, not the target.