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Lessons From the NFL on Mental Fitness and Masculinity Norms

What research shows about masculinity, mental health, and elite athletes.

Key points

  • Research suggests that popular culture plays an important role in the lives of young Black males.
  • Among males, studies show that manhood and masculinity norms contribute to males' mental health.
  • Elite athletes, such as NFL players, can play critical roles in addressing mental health stigma in males.
Photo by Dorrell Tibbs/Unsplash
Source: Photo by Dorrell Tibbs/Unsplash

Research has consistently shown over the years that males are less likely to seek therapy than females. However, as the topic of mental health is trending, some may wonder if that is changing.

Are males changing perspectives on the benefits of exploring mental health challenges and tackling traumatic experiences?

As a psychologist and professor, my career has focused on understanding mental health disparities and providing therapy services to individuals from diverse communities.

Over the years, I have worked with many boys and men to address various mental health concerns. I have commonly noticed that males are reluctant to talk about their emotions. On occasion, even when males pursue therapy and are in the office, they may initially express that they don't see any benefit in therapy.

According to research, male gender role socialization encourages males to be self-reliant and control their emotions, which could be incongruent with acknowledging their emotions or seeking therapy (Mahalik & Di Bianca, 2021). Media representations of popular figures or celebrities can influence how males think about masculinity and emotional expression. For example, more celebrities have been disclosing their mental health struggles or diagnosis, which has led to more men talking about going to therapy.

Athletes, such as NFL players, have been playing a critical role in mental health awareness by starting their own foundations to focus on prevention and mental health literacy. Solomon Thomas, an NFL defensive lineman for the Las Vegas Raiders, is the co-founder of The Defensive Line. According to the website, the Defensive Line was created following the death of Thomas’ sister, who died by suicide in 2018.

Recently, the world was in shock when the NFL paused and later canceled the game after the medical emergency of Damar Hamlin, NFL safety for the Buffalo Bills. Many focused on the player’s health and sent out prayers, myself included. While others discussed the impact of witnessing this traumatic event on Hamlin’s teammates and fellow athletes.

Trauma is often defined as a broad category of stressful life events and can range from physical abuse, witnessing violence, or experiencing life-threatening situations. In the discussions that occurred on social media, what stood out for me were the role of mental fitness on athletes and how masculinity norms in society teach us as males to put performance over our mental wellness. NFL players that speak out on mental health and trauma can help to continue conversations on this topic and reduce the stigma around therapy.

How Masculinity Norms Contribute to Mental Health

Mahalik et al. (2003) described common traits of masculinity among boys and men:

  • Being strong and silent. Being viewed as unemotional is central to the strong and silent masculinity trait. This helps boys and men live up to masculine role expectations about controlling one's feelings.
  • Being a tough guy. Growing up, boys are often taught to be “tough,” which may also promote suppressing emotions potentially associated with vulnerability.
  • Being self-reliant. Traditional masculine gender roles encourage males to be independent and avoid seeking help from others.

Among Black males, research indicates some complexity in manhood and masculinity. Scholars have noted that among Black males, familial involvement, independence, self-esteem, personal aspirations, social consciousness, and responsibility to themselves and others were central components of Black masculinity (Goodwill et al., 2019).

While research shows that masculinity norms and adhering to traditional masculinity are not inherently bad things, they could contribute to higher risks of mental health difficulties. For example, one study found that there is a relationship between masculinity norms of self-reliance and emotional control, depression, and less help-seeking (Mahalik & Di Bianca, 2021).

Athletes at the collegiate and professional levels experience numerous stressors from the demands of playing sports and dealing with typical life stressors. Despite the high-stress level, many athletes are less likely to seek mental health support than their non-athlete counterparts (Fogaca, 2021; Turner, 2020). The role of masculinity norms appears to influence this lack of help-seeking.

The recent incident following Hamlin’s medical emergency taught us that men are allowed some space for their mental health, but the game of life must go on. While many continue to focus on spreading mental health awareness, we must also challenge the narrative that teaches males from a young age that they have to restrict their emotions. Being self-reliant and restricting emotions can only work for a short period. Having the space to process negative life events and cope with stress is critical to emotional wellness and physical health.

Since 2019, the NFL and NFL Players Association have worked to support teams more by providing resources, including requiring each team to have a licensed mental health provider on staff. This is one major step in addressing the stigma around males seeking help.

Steps When Considering Therapy

If someone you know, or you struggle with mental health difficulties or where to find a space to problem solve, specifically trained therapists work with various concerns. Here are some suggestions if you are unsure where to start:

  1. Don’t be afraid to ask around. If you have a friend or family member that you trust, they may be able to suggest a therapist that they have worked with before.
  2. Contact your insurance provider to ask about your area's therapists covered in your network.
  3. Consider having a phone, in-person, or virtual consultation with a therapist to speak with them to see if they are a good fit to meet your specific needs.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

References

Fogaca, J. L. (2021). Combining mental health and performance interventions: Coping and social support for student-athletes. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 33(1), 4-19.

Goodwill, J. R., Anyiwo, N., Williams, E. D. G., Johnson, N. C., Mattis, J. S., & Watkins, D. C. (2019). Media representations of popular culture figures and the construction of Black masculinities. Psychology of Men & Masculinities, 20(3), 288-298.

Mahalik, J. R., & Di Bianca, M. (2021). Help-seeking for depression as a stigmatized threat to masculinity. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 52(2), 146-155.

Mahalik, J. R., Good, G. E., & Englar-Carlson, M. (2003). Masculinity scripts, presenting concerns, and help seeking: Implications for practice and training. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 34(2), 123-131.

Turner, E.A. (2020). Depression and athletes. In D. Hackfort, & R.J. Schinke (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Sports and Exercise Psychology: Theoretical and Methodological Concepts. Routledge International Publishing.

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