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Men's Mental Health: A Silent Crisis

An exploration of factors behind high rates of mental health problems in men.

Numerous researchers have recently stated that there is a silent crisis in men’s mental health. This is based on robust evidence that men have high rates of various mental health issues.

These include elevated rates of suicide and substance abuse, as well as low rates of mental health service use. Sadly, male gender often intersects with other variables to produce even higher rates in some sub-groups.


Men make up over 75 percent of suicide victims in the United States, with one man killing himself every 20 minutes. Men living in small towns and rural areas have particularly high rates of suicide. Indeed, flyover states such as Wyoming, Montana, New Mexico and Utah have the highest rates of suicide in the country. Alaska also has very high rates.

This has been attributed to various factors. One factor is the massive decline in traditional male industries such as manufacturing, forestry and fisheries, leaving large swathes of men in certain regions unemployed or under-employed.

In the current economy, many men are finding it difficult to fulfill a breadwinner role, leaving them without a powerful sense of pride, purpose and meaning in life.

Very high rates have been observed in veterans, young American Indians and gay men. A common factor among these groups may be perceived (or real) rejection from mainstream society, leading to strong feelings of alienation and isolation. These factors are explored in the poignant video below about low-income men struggling after divorce.

Substance abuse

Substance use is a predominantly male problem, occurring at a rate of 3 to 1 in comparison to females. Substance abuse is sometimes referred to as "slow-motion suicide," given that it can often end in a premature death for the person concerned.

Research indicates that many men engage in substance abuse in response to stressful life transitions including unemployment and divorce. Indeed, almost 50 percent of marriages end in divorce. Many men report negative experience in family courts, with data suggesting that only about 1 in 6 men have custody of their children, often with minimal visitation rights.

This separation and loss can be soul-destroying for the men concerned, again leaving them isolated and alienated from mainstream society. As such, substance abuse may be a maladaptive response to a malevolent situation.

Again high rates of substance abuse are observed in certain sub-groups, including veterans as well as American Indians, implying the need for targeted interventions in these groups.

Mental Health Service Utilization

Evidence suggests that men are significantly less likely to use mental health services in response to a mental health issue in comparison with women. This is especially so for Black, Latino, and Asian men, who have much lower utilization rates than white men, as well as women in general.

In other words, men who are suicidal or have substance abuse problems are much more likely to suffer in silence, especially minority men.

This is often attributed to stubbornness in men, rooted in traditional American notions of masculinity that emphasize "true grit" doggedness. However, another explanation is that formal mental health services are not finely attuned to men’s needs, especially minority men. Indeed, these services tend to emphasize medication or talk-therapy. But some research suggests that men prefer action over words in the face of stressful situations.

This may explain the growing popularity of practical interventions such as "men’s sheds." These are physical spaces where isolated and lonely men can gather together for practical activities such as woodwork and repairs, while receiving valuable peer-support in the process.


What can be done to improve men’s mental health?

Firstly, men’s mental health should be recognized as a social issue as much as a health issue, with attention paid to issues such as unemployment and familial disruption. Secondly, there should be more choice in the formal mental health system, with more male-tailored options that respond to men’s unique needs. Thirdly, health departments at the various levels of government should create specific strategies to improve men’s mental health, with the setting of targets and goals based on recent research.

This may go some way to reducing the silent crisis of men’s mental health.

More from Rob Whitley, Ph.D.
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