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Breaking Stereotypes: Masculinity and Mental Health

Most everyone can agree that once you arrive at university, mental health becomes a hot topic. But when it comes to mental illness, there is a difference between how males and females perceive and deal with their mental health. The reason for this, is complicated, but it appears to be rooted in concepts of masculinity.

Student Union president Herbert Bempah believes there is, which is why the UNBSU is once again running a campaign on Breaking Stereotypes, only this time their theme is masculinity and mental health.

“This year we were just discussing ways as to which we can create events for Movember and we realized Breaking Stereotypes is just really a great opportunity to start conversations on mental health and masculinity, hence why we chose it to be our theme this year,” Bempah said. 

This year’s campaign video promises to be more light-hearted and conversational than last year’s, and students will be answering questions around their thoughts on masculinity, on mental health and on how society can do a better job of making men feel more comfortable and open discussing their mental health.

“When you look at masculinity, men are always advised to feel a certain way. And I feel that truly suppresses emotional well-being—hence the reason men are not accessing mental health services…and men are suffering more with mental health issues and are dying way earlier than they’re supposed to as opposed to women,” said Bempah.

According to Rice Fuller, UNB’s director of Counselling Services, Bempah is right—men are less likely to access mental health services, at a rate that Fuller speculates is about two to one, “maybe even a little higher.”

That isn’t to say that men don’t need to access these services. According to Statistics Canada, the suicide rate for males is three times higher than it is for women.

“We know that females are more likely to make suicide attempts, men are much more likely to actually be successful at killing themselves,” Fuller said.

Fuller said that while women are more likely to be diagnosed with mood disorders such as depression, men experience more issues with substance use and impulsivity related disorders.

This is backed up by Stats Canada data, which found that approximately 10 per cent of Canadian women are diagnosed with mood disorders compared to approximately 6 per cent of men. By contrast, 5.8 per cent of men suffer from substance use disorders compared to 1.9 per cent of women. Further data shows that substance use disorders are more prevalent in younger age groups.

What does masculinity have to do with this?

What is it about males that makes them less likely to seek help when they’re going through difficult times?

Fuller says it has to do with the different way males and females are socialized, and that the social construct of masculinity perpetuated by a lot of males can actually contribute to negative mental health outcomes.

Despite the widely-recognized term, the word masculinity can still cause some confusion when trying to define precisely what it is.

And maybe that’s because masculinity isn’t precise, it can mean different things to different people and present itself in different ways.

Jesse Reid, a computer science student, is one of the Breaking Stereotypes participants who talks about these definitions.

“I’m a big stickler for dictionary definitions, and like masculinity is just a bunch of traits—qualities and traits—that are typically associated with men,” he said.

The conformity to masculine norms inventory (CMNI) is a reputed research tool used to measure masculinity, with the understanding that it’s made up of a number of different aspects. As a result, CMNI uses of 11 subscales for measuring masculinity.

Fuller said that the CMNI asks 94 different questions relating to these different subscales, and the result is an overall score of masculinity, which can be associated with a lot of negative physical and psychological outcomes.

“Questions that ask about winning, the drive to win—to be first; questions that ask about emotional control, risk-taking, violence, dominance; a concept called playboy, which has to do with kind of the importance of sexual conquests, self-reliance, primacy of work, power over women, disdain of homosexuals, pursuit of status,” are only some of the questions, according to Fuller.

However, what’s interesting is that some subscales exhibit traits that are more likely to lead to negative mental health outcomes than others, says Fuller. Self-reliance, the playboy, and power over women are the three subscales most associated with “negative mental health outcomes and a decreased likelihood of seeking help.”

Although most men are probably unaware of the CMNI, Reid mentioned similar traits—ones that make it difficult for men to deal with mental illness—being discussed during the shooting for the campaign.

“Not showing weakness I guess is really a big one, not being open about when you have a problem… I guess from an early age I would think the whole ‘boys don’t cry,’ and that kind of stuff is really pushed on to most guys,” said Reid.

Bempah shared similar sentiments to Reid: “You know there’s this fear of judgement…and that is a terrible feeling, to bottle things inside of you and to essentially be advised to suck it up and just not let it out, and sometimes you just really want to be able to talk about it.”

Communication is different for men (it’s difficult)

A key factor in the association between masculinity and mental health is that men are less likely to be socially engaged than women, which is a problem considering social connection is cited as “the most important predictor of good mental health” according to Fuller.

“I think that it has to do with this socialization that men and boys don’t do that type of thing—to seek support from other people is to be a sissy or a wuss—and [it’s] something that women do. That might explain why we’re more likely to talk to a female about it than another man,” Fuller said.

Reid finds this to be true. He said he talked more about his mental health with his girl friends than boys.

“There are some stuff that I talk to guys about, but I’d say definitely just in general, like overall, no topic specific or anything…[girls are] more approachable, I would say.”

This concept of self-reliance that male internalize is what can lead them to feeling isolated in their problems and like they can’t reach out.

“This isn’t to say self-reliance is a bad thing—self-reliance is a good thing. But taken to a point where you don’t depend on other people or have connections with other people that can provide support to you, that is a bad thing. There’s no question about that,” said Fuller.

Fuller believes that promoting more social connection is one of the ways mental health can be improved on-campus, which is exactly what Bempah hopes the Breaking Stereotypes campaign will facilitate.

“We should be able to create an atmosphere where people are comfortable with all aspects of wellness- physical, emotional, mental…[Breaking Stereotypes] is just really an opportunity to create that discussion and normalize men being able to express their emotions in different ways completely,” said Bempah.

Although Reid participated in the campaign, he said personally the concept of masculinity hasn’t had much effect on his mental health—from the beginning, he has always been open about seeking help for his ADHD, which he was diagnosed with a couple of years ago in the middle of his degree.

Reid sought medical help after he started taking some of the writing courses required for computer science and he realized he was having a lot of difficulty reading and concentrating for long periods of time.

“It was really frustrating before and it was just like, ‘what is wrong with me? I have no idea why like I’m sitting down really trying to focus and not getting any results’…it was just really hard to think about anything for a consistently long time,” said Reid. “[The medication] has slowed down things—but not in like my brain’s slow or anything—just like it helps you focus.”

After his diagnosis, Reid participated in the #MyDefinition campaign that was facilitated by former UNBSU vice-president internal Lee Thomas during their time at university.

“I’m pretty easygoing and open about my stuff but I know a lot of guys aren’t, so I’m more than happy to step forward and that,” Reid said.

However, Reid believes that more guys should be more open about their mental health, especially if something seems off, because of the great improvement it can have on your overall life satisfaction.

“Being diagnosed was probably one of the best things that ever happened,” said Reid.

Reid said that through his role as a proctor and his service on the Student Union, he tries to take opportunities to promote using services like counseling because it makes a big difference, especially when you’re struggling to understand exactly what’s going on.

“I just want [to talk to] someone who is really knowledgeable…when I talk to my friends I don’t always want to talk all about my problems, so it was like, ‘go to a professional; we can get straight to the point,’” said Reid.

“Just like I go to the gym to work out, I can go to counseling to like work out brain stuff.”

It starts early

The socialization of men in terms of these masculine ideals is something that Fuller said starts at an early age.

“It has to do with the way we raise our kids,” said Fuller. “We talk a lot about doing things at university to teach people about consent to teach people about preventing rape, teach people about being a bystander,when I think that we may be too late in trying to do that… we’re having to reteach people at this point things they have already learned.”

“So that begs the question: what have they already learned, why have they already learned it and who are they learning it from?”

Reid echoed Fuller’s sentiments: “It starts so early. Like, I’ve been in Superstore and there’s a little boy crying and a girl in the cart who isn’t and the parent says ‘your sister’s not crying, toughen up.’”

Role Models in sport a potential solution?

In his explanation of ways to reduce the stigma around masculinity and mental health, Fuller indicated role models through sport as a potential solution.

“I think that [varsity athletes] are potentially good role models for this, the male ones in particular, because people may look to them more as being closer to these male ideals,” Fuller said.

“It’s been pretty powerful on the few occasions over the past couple of years where male athletes have spoken out against partner violence and sexual assault, and so I think that’s a potentially powerful avenue for change.”

Spencer Dawson is a fourth year business student who plays on UNB’s basketball team. He has been involved with some of the mental health initiatives coming out of the athletics department the past couple years, and he says masculinity can definitely be perpetuated through sport.

“You feel like there’s like a certain way you’re supposed to act—you know being like a man who plays sport—and then it just kind of carries with you for a long time,” he said.

Dawson said his coaches really emphasize communication, and learning how to do that with their teammates both on and off the team really helps him and his teammates stay mentally healthy.

“The closer you get with your friends on the team, the more you talk to each other, the easier it is to just be yourself,” he said. “You don’t have to act a certain way because you think it’s how you’re supposed to be, like you can just be yourself.”  

Dawson’s teammate, WIll Legere, said that while he doesn’t personally utilize services like counseling, he’s not opposed to the idea.

“Everybody goes through the same thing, feels the same experiences. But if we don’t talk about it, it’s easy to feel alone and isolated in your experience.”

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