The landscape of masculinity is rapidly shifting; it is, to borrow from James Brown, arguably no longer a “man’s, man’s, man’s world.” In point of fact, men, on average, die seven years sooner than women and have poorer health across a variety of domains. Men are also less likely than women to seek help for health concerns, especially behavioral health concerns.
Boys grow up with pressure not to cry, to be strong and silent, to not be a wuss, and to act as if they are invincible. They are told to be unemotional, self-sufficient, and immovable, and many men internalize these values and use them as a yardstick to measure their masculinity. As a result, many men are reluctant to seek help. They are to ride off into the sunset alone, relying solely on their wits and grit to survive. Isolation is one of the primary currencies of masculinity. Unfortunately, however, attempting to live up to this ideal can have disastrous consequences.
In his book Unmasking Male Depression, Archibald Hart, Ph.D., argues that depression is often under-diagnosed in men because men tend to present with a different set of symptoms than women.[ii] While men with depression may demonstrate sadness and loss of pleasure in activities they used to enjoy, which are two cornerstone symptoms of depression, they can also feel angry, easily frustrated, and apathetic, and they often turn to addictions like alcohol, drugs, gambling, or pornography. And because of the social script of masculinity that they are told to follow, they are more likely than women to suffer in silence and isolation. After all, if they seek help, men are no longer following the social norm that requires them to be rugged and self-sufficient.
So what is the key? Where is help to be found? In a tragic irony, men can often find healing in the one place they are told not to look: in the company of others.
Mark Kiselica, Ph.D., and Matt Englar-Carlson, Ph.D., published an article in 2010 in the journal Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, and Training that describes the unique ways men relate. One strength they point out is how men are drawn to working in groups.[iii] This tendency to work in groups is a fundamental part of the male psyche that manifests across culture and context. As seen in a variety of places from HBO miniseries like Band of Brothers to sports teams, work groups, video games, fire teams, and other goal-oriented small groups, many men are drawn to settings where they can work shoulder-to-shoulder to overcome a common obstacle or compete against a common foe. Furthermore, mountains of research have shown that good social support is one of the most powerful buffers against stress for both men and women. While isolation may be one of the currencies of masculinity, it is a currency that is certainly at the root of many kinds of evil in men’s lives.
It is a tragic irony that the thing men are told to stay away from – seeking out help from others – is the one thing that has the greatest potential to help them heal. Although asking for help may seem like a show of weakness, it is actually the strongest and most courageous decision a man who is struggling can make.
[i] Courtenay, W.H. (2000). Engendering health: A social constructionist examination of men’s health beliefs and behaviors. Psychology of Men and Masculinity, 1(1), 4-15. doi: 10.1037//1524-9184.108.40.206.
[ii] Hart, A. (2001). Unmasking male depression: Recognizing the root cause to many problem behaviors, such as anger, resentment, abusiveness, silence, addictions, and sexual compulsions. Nashville: Word Pub.
[iii] Kiselica, M., & Englar-Carlson, M. (2010). Identifying, affirming, and building upon male strengths: The positive psychology/positive masculinity model of psychotherapy with boys and men. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, and Training, 47(3), 276-287. doi:10.1037/a0021159.
J. Ryan Poling, MA, has experience working clinically with a wide range of populations and presenting concerns. He is a clinical psychology doctoral candidate and was Adjunct Professor of Psychology at Azusa Pacific University from 2012 to 2015 where he taught general psychology, social psychology, and psychopathology.