The taboos surrounding mental health have to be pulled down if toxic masculinity is to be eradicated and male suffering reduced.
Pull yourself together. Toughen up. Boys don’t cry. Every man will have heard these words at some point. They are deemed to be the appropriate phrases by which a man can navigate periods of emotional or economic hardship. Yet they are woefully inadequate. They have enabled toxic masculinity, contributed to disproportionate rates of male suicide, and ensured that existential questions of worthlessness have gone unanswered.
“Boys are socialized with toxic masculinity as the ideal of what it is to be a man,” says Saliha Afridi, a clinical psychologist and managing director of The Lighthouse Centre for Wellbeing in Dubai. From an early age, they are told to be strong, tough, and stoic, she says, while aggressiveness is accepted and vulnerability is viewed as a weakness. Asking for help is also judged to be a flaw. “These boys grow up to be men who have only denied their feelings and never learned to understand, express, or regulate,” adds Afridi. “Then we wonder why men on average are four times more likely to be substance abusers, four times more likely to commit suicide, and 11 times more likely to spend time in jail.”
Even discussing the possibility that anything could be wrong is frowned upon. When Kim Kardashian West went public with her husband Kanye West’s bipolar disorder, she did so in order to address the “stigma and misconceptions” surrounding mental health. Misconceptions that are often aggressively perpetuated by men themselves, who openly denigrate others who speak out about issues relating to mental health. “The biggest perpetrators of toxic masculinity are men,” states Afridi. “Yes, men are silenced by the collective culture, but they are mostly silenced by other men, who are perceived as the enemy, as threats and competition, and not as brothers. Everyone competes for the role of the ‘alpha’ male and in such a culture, competitiveness and power rule. But underneath that power, there is a fear of not measuring up to societal standards of what it means to be a man.”
Traditionally, a man’s role is perceived as that of provider and protector. Within such a worldview there is no room for failure or self-doubt. There is no room for helplessness or inadequacy either, whether those feelings are caused by career unhappiness, suppressed trauma, or societal or financial pressures. All this and more has been exacerbated by Covid-19, with its amplification of both emotional and financial suffering. “The belief that a man should suffer in silence, otherwise experience societal backlash is one of the main reasons why men suffer,” says Deema Sihweil, a clinical psychologist and clinical director of The Psychology Center at the Carbone Clinic in Dubai. “These misconceptions and misunderstandings that suffering is meant to be experienced or dealt with alone are what keep men from seeking vital support and treatment.”
Power is the central issue in the lives of men, believes Afridi. To admit that you are depressed or anxious, or that you suffer from mental illness, means you are powerless. “Men would rather die (which is why the suicide completion rate for men is so high) than admit that they need support or they are not well,” she says. “They are more afraid of illness, incapacity, and impotence than of death because in these states they are powerless.” In 2016, the World Health Organization reported an estimated 793 000 deaths by suicide worldwide. Of those, the vast majority were men. In the UK and Australia, men are three times more likely to die by suicide than women. In the US and Russia, that figure rises to three-and-a-half and four times more, respectively. Regionally, the cultural and religious stigmas associated with suicide (deemed a sin in both Islam and conservative Christianity) have contributed to its underreporting. Suicide does not discriminate by class, nationality, or wealth. In 2018, the K-Pop star Kim Jong-hyun killed himself, adding his name to a long list of K-Pop suicides. In June 2020, the Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput also ended his own life after reportedly suffering from depression.
In Lebanon, where economic turmoil, protests, and August’s Beirut Port explosion have caused severe social and political distress, suicide rates have more than doubled in the past year, according to Embrace, an NGO working to raise awareness around mental health in the country. In early July 2020, for example, a 61-year-old man killed himself in front of a doughnut shop in Hamra. The same day, a 37-year-old man took his own life at his home in Jadra. “Depression and anxiety have been rising for many months now,” says Hala Kerbage, a psychiatrist and executive board member of Embrace. “Many reports indicate that poverty and associated experiences can exacerbate feelings of frustration, hopelessness, and helplessness, as well as pre-existing mental health concerns. In addition, the government has attempted to control the uprising with repression through arbitrary arrests, violence, and counter-narratives, which may contribute to increased experiences of traumatic distress.”
In response, Embrace has provided support through its suicide prevention and emotional support hotline (call 1546) and is actively engaged in mental health awareness campaigns. Through these campaigns, it is seeking to reduce the stigma around mental health and encourage people to seek care when needed. “Disseminating mental health awareness campaigns on social media, as well as acknowledging and validating people’s own perceptions and beliefs regarding mental health without being judgmental and wanting to teach them about mental health, make people, especially men, more accessible to change, discussion, and disclosure of their mental distress,” says Kerbage. Elsewhere, actors such as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Jon Hamm, as well as Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, have contributed towards change by openly discussing their battles with depression. Such open and honest debate will be central to the removal of entrenched stigmas surrounding male mental health. “People have to relate to mental health issues by understanding and accepting the ubiquity of psychological experience,” says Sihweil. “What needs to be universally understood and rooted in our experience is the conviction that seeking psychological help for emotional pain is like seeking physical therapy for physical pain. It’s a matter of emotional intelligence and understanding that our emotions, both painful and pleasurable, guide us to seeking help and healing and are indeed what make the difference between just being and being well.”