On World Suicide Prevention Day, Louise Kitchingham looks at the issue of toxic masculinity and why it is often a barrier to mental health treatment.
Today, 10 September, is World Suicide Prevention Day – a day dedicated specifically to raising awareness about suicide and how we can work towards creating a world where fewer people die this way.
Men’s mental health
As there are a large number of reasons why people may not wish to continue living, each year has an international theme to recognise the many factors that contribute and the many ways we can help. This year is ‘Working together to prevent suicide’, continued from the last two year’s campaigns. This theme highlights one of the most important considerations for effective global suicide prevention – collaborating and reaching out to others in need.
Each year, suicide ranks in the top 20 leading causes of fatality across the world for people of all ages, and it is responsible for more than 800,000 deaths – translating to one suicide every 40 seconds, according to the World Health Organization. These statistics aren’t just numbers; they are friends, members of a family, partners, parents, sons and daughters.
But when we consider statistics, there is a significant difference between genders. The number of suicides is much higher among males than females across all age groups in the world. In the UK, men are three times more likely to die by suicide than women.
The toxicity in toxic masculinity
Toxic masculinity, is, unfortunately, a term we’ve all come across. The concept has been around for a while, but now it is discussed pretty much everywhere. And for good reason.
Toxic masculinity is essentially a ‘macho’ and ‘red-blooded’ culture where men are expected to be tough and carry typical ‘masculine’ characteristics. Researchers defined toxic masculinity by behaviours and beliefs in part as:
- Suppressing emotions or masking distress
- Maintaining an appearance of toughness
- Violence as an indicator of power (e.g. tough-guy behaviour)
In simple terms, toxic masculinity is the result of decades, perhaps centuries, of society teaching boys that they can’t and shouldn’t express emotion openly and that if they do, then they are weak and ‘feminine’. These boys then internalise these feelings and grow into men who have been taught that they can’t be anything less than ‘masculine’.
According to the American Psychological Association, these norms integrated into our culture has been linked to aggression and violence, resulting in men at “disproportionate risk for school discipline, academic challenges, and health disparities,” including cardiovascular problems, substance abuse, and suicide.
As well as toxic masculinity, there is also a massive stigma around mental health that is in the process of being deconstructed. Due to mass conversation on social media around the world, more and more of us are understanding the importance of mental health and being able to open up, although there is a long way to go. So let’s do the same with toxic masculinity.
Barrier to mental health treatment
Sadly, men who have internalised traditional views of masculinity are not only less likely to go to see their doctor, but they are also less likely to be honest about their health history and symptoms.
It can be incredibly daunting reaching out for medical advice, particularly about something so private. But if you need help, contact your GP to discuss how you’re feeling. Everything discussed will be confidential, so you don’t have to worry about anyone finding out. They can recommend medication, lifestyle changes, therapies, and support to help.
If you struggle reaching out and are reluctant about making the first step, you can access online doctor appointments through healthcare apps like myGP which allow you to speak to your doctor via video call, providing your GP surgery supports this technology. This can be particularly important for those who are held back by feelings of discomfort, offering a degree of discretion. Not only accessing medical advice virtually, but you can also order prescriptions, access your medical records, and mental health services. With toxic masculinity and general mental health stigma holding many people back from seeking help, research suggests that technology can help improve access to services.
Sadly, men who have internalised traditional views of masculinity are not only less likely to go to see their doctor, but they are also less likely to be honest about their health history and symptoms.”
What can colleagues, friends and family do?
Masculinity can be redeemed. It’s time to reclaim the meaning of masculinity and creating it as a concept of compassion and care. Here are some tips to help build trust with those in need and encourage the men you love to be more comfortable sharing their emotions.
Avoid trivialising men’s mental health: This is probably one of the most important and effective points to consider. Avoid saying things that invalidate a man’s feelings—for example, “you sound like a woman”, “stop being a girl”, “man up”, and “why are you being so emotional?”. Instead, acknowledge their feelings, show empathy, and provide support. Finding the right words can be difficult, and nobody is expecting you to provide high-quality counselling. If you find that you don’t know what to say, even listening without judgment is the best thing you can do.
Check up on your friends and family: Dropping in, whether it is by their house or in their texts, shows that you’re there for them and they can rely on you for support. Feeling alone is a huge symptom of depression, so let them know they’re not.
Encourage men to express emotions: Expressing emotion and crying are normal reactions for all people, regardless of gender. Don’t associate crying or stereotypically-feminine traits with being weak. Processing emotions makes us human – encourage the men in your life to acknowledge this.
Feeling and displaying your emotions aren’t bad things. Both femininity and masculinity can encompass compassion, empathy, and care, and shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. Please seek medical advice if you’re in need.