How toxic masculinity affects mental health
Toxic masculinity has been a popular buzz word for academics and activist for the last couple of decades, but is it clear to anyone what it is and how it affects mental health?
What is toxic masculinity?
In a nutshell, when you hear something or someone referred to as toxic masculinity, they are often adhering to traditional male stereotypes such as being socially dominant, misogynistic or promoting violence through homophobia.
A lot of toxic traits are deeply rooted in our culture as and are often dismissed as the cultural norm. For instance, schoolyard bullying and aggression between boys from early ages is accepted as nothing more than 'boys will be boys'. The acceptance that bullying and aggression are commonplace in life, and in particular for boys and men, leads to serious negative effects on the mental health of individuals and wider society.
How to define masculinity?
To begin with, masculinity is a social construct and is not exclusively a male trait. It is common for females to display masculine traits which only furthers the debate around masculinity and around whether masculinity is influenced by biology or by society. It is incredibly difficult to define what masculinity is in the 21st century and that is partially the point: we live in a society that says males should be the epitome of masculinity, but as a society, we can't define what masculinity is.
Despite the lack of clarity to what it is, the pressure to be masculine is real. How many times have you said or heard someone say 'man up' or 'grow some balls', without giving it any thought? Without any apparent balance to that mentality, to say it is masculine to cry for instance, or that it is masculine to speak out about mental health and emotions, it is no surprise that we have generations of emotionally repressed men.
Whether someone adheres to all or none of the stereotypes around masculinity, the toxic nature of how we view masculinity will harm an individuals well-being but also for wider society as a whole.
How toxic masculinity affects mental health?
Some of the common traits that have been covered above can have fairly obvious consequences. A common stereotype of ‘what a man should be’ is a socially dominant playboy who swigs beers and fights for the lads, but there are more subtle traits that harm peoples mental well-being that goes unnoticed.
Self- reliance, for example, is the idea that males should not ask for help and that a man is capable of doing everything he needs to do, a bit like the hunter-gatherer. But what happens when a male is not self-reliant and is unable to do everything he needs to do? It can lead to males becoming emotionally repressed and feeling unable to express how they feel, or to feel inadequate because they have 'failed' to live up to a harmful cultural norm. Emotional repression can manifest in stress and anxiety leading to depression and often substance abuse.
If asking for help could stop or prevent a negative chain of events and emotions, then it needs to become the norm for males to be able to ask for help without being labelled weak or unmanly. Do we need to discuss what 'masculinity' and 'manliness' mean in modern society?
Combating toxic masculinity
Objectively, toxic masculinity can be found everywhere, from physical actions to the use of language. Take the above sub-heading and the use of the word 'combating'. A word that is associated with fighting was used, when with a minor alteration, the word 'dealing' would have made the same point without the toxic association of fighting. Some may consider that to be an extreme point, but it is an attempt at highlighting how deeply ingrained toxic traits are within society.
It's good to talk, but it's hard to talk
The discussion of mental health and well-being has become more mainstream in recent years, but the conversation in the age of social media contains little more than buzz words, hashtags and cliches. 'It's good to talk' is one that is thrown around and it is good to talk, but we shouldn't underestimate that a large percentage of the population don't have the skill set to express how they feel and find it hard to talk leading to them becoming socially withdrawn.
The negative impact of a repressed male population reinforces the importance of projects like Menhear.
Menhear facilitates a number of projects including the weekly peer-led Menhear support groups that have an emphasis on discussing mental well-being. The sessions are held in a safe and neutral space and encourage members to share as little or as much as they feel comfortable with.
The demand to attend the group sessions continues to grow even in the age of COVID-19, stretching what little budget organisations like Menhear have to its limits. With donations, Menhear's projects will reach bigger audiences and help more men. The more men we're able to listen to, the more men we're able to help.
It's vital that Menhear is able to carry on the work it is doing, our members are living with different struggles and health issues but they are all learning the same things. Respect for themselves and each other and that with organisations like Menhear, they are not alone.