It’s Time to Stop Blaming Men for Their Mental Health Woes

This is men's health week, a chance to renew thinking about men's mental health.

Posted Jun 11, 2018

Many mental health campaigns consistently encourage people to spend more time talking. These campaigns consider talking as a sign of emotional literacy and essential to the development of positive mental health and psychological resilience.

This encouragement to talk is commonly deployed when discussing men’s mental health, where men are frequently stereotyped as self-destructively silent, stubborn and stoical in the face of mental health issues.

For example, the Australian national mental health campaign ‘Beyond Blue’ starts its men’s mental health web-page with the sentence ‘men are known for bottling things up’. Likewise, recent media articles on men's mental health focus on men's alleged taciturnity, with accusatory titles such as 'men need to talk about their mental health' or 'not talking about mental health is literally killing men'. In this discourse, men themselves are implicitly blamed for their mental health woes.

‘If only men would talk more, their mental health would improve and their problems would be solved’ or so the argument goes. However, such a simplistic rendering of the issue is highly problematic for a variety of reasons.

Firstly, it glosses over growing evidence that social context is a key determinant of mental health. Secondly, it blames the victim, further contributing to a lack of empathy and understanding. Thirdly, it ignores much research indicating that there are different modalities of mental health healing, many of which are action-based rather than talk-based.

Social Context

The amassed research indicates that social factors (rather than taciturn men) play a key role in the development and persistence of men’s mental health problems. For example, male suicide and substance abuse rates tend to be highest in rural areas with high unemployment and declining industries. This can lead to a lack of hope, meaning and purpose for many men, especially unskilled and less-educated ones. 

Other research indicates that negative life transitions can have a very harmful effect on men’s mental health. Well-researched factors include redundancy, divorce and bereavement, especially when this is sudden and unexpected. False accusations and subsequent investigations can also have a very damaging effect on men's mental health.

Common across these factors is a process of shock, loss and the subsequent experience of an existential (and financial) vacuum. This concrete negative social experience is often the root cause of men's mental health issues, and focusing on men’s alleged inability to ‘open-up’ conveniently ignores these underlying social issues.

Blaming the Victim

As stated, many men’s mental health campaigns focus attention on men’s supposed silence and reticence to discuss problems. This can lead to a harmful narrative that blames and berates men for their mental health woes, implying that their own behavior is the root cause. This approach is known as ‘victim-blaming’ in public health, and is studiously avoided in women’s mental health campaigns, where social context is often acknowledged as a key determinant of mental health.

Indeed, my own research indicates that media portrayals of women with mental illness tend to be much more empathic and sympathetic than portrayals of men with mental illness, which tend to be harsh and punitive. Famed Stanford University Professor Philip Zimbardo rightly calls this an ‘empathy gap’, where societal sympathy for men is in short supply.

This empathy gap manifests itself in various ways. Interestingly, numerous men in my own research studies have noted that they have tried talking about their mental health issues, but few men or women in their social circle have been prepared to listen. Some even report that family and friends have simply told them to 'man-up', or worse still ostracized them as black sheep.

So who is really to blame for men's alleged taciturnity?

The Differing Modalities of Healing

University of Missouri Professor Amanda Rose has conducted considerable research comparing male and female orientations to talking, concluding that males often ‘don’t see talking about problems to be particularly useful…men may be more likely to think talking about problems will make the problems feel bigger and engaging in different activities will take their mind off of the problem’

Indeed, much research suggests that many men prefer action-based modalities of healing over talk-based modalities. This includes regular exercise, which has been shown to effectively reduce depressive symptoms. Likewise religious and traditional healing based on prayer, ritual or ceremony can be effective in improving men’s mental health, especially for minority, immigrant and aboriginal men.

Some action-oriented mental health services specifically target men. One of these is known as ‘men’s sheds’; places where isolated and lonely men can go to create, repair or make things- finding camaraderie, solace and support in the process. Men's sheds builds on men's strengths, and its motto contains much wisdom: 'men don't talk face-to-face, they talk shoulder-to-shoulder'. 

All of the above were discussed in-depth during a recent symposium on Men’s Mental Health at McGill University, where prominent researchers, journalists and politicians discussed underlying issues and potential solutions (see video below)

Conclusion

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to mental health issues. This is why an inclusive mental health system must offer different modalities of healing. For some men, face-to-face talking can lead to helpful comfort and support: ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’. For others, it can lead to painful brooding and rumination: ‘do not reopen old wounds’. For the latter, action-based modalities of healing may be more effective.

Clinicians must elicit preferences, offer a variety of choices and work with the grain when interacting with individual male patients. Indeed, men who are berated and blamed for being ‘in denial’ or stubbornly silent may actually be engaging in a well-honed strategy of distraction and resilience. This strategy may have evolved after failed efforts to discuss mental health issues with others, a sad manifestation of the empathy gap that permeates wider society.

Indeed, solving the men's mental health crisis involves changes at various levels. But currently, too much emphasis is being put on changing men's supposed silence, and not enough on changing society and changing the mental health services that are meant to serve the whole of society, 

Trite calls for men to 'talk more' are not the answer, and obscure the root causes of men's mental health woes. Take note.