We’ve all probably heard that “men don’t like to ask for directions.” Although this clichéd stereotype certainly does not describe all male-identifying people, it is still important to consider whether men really are less likely than women to ask for help when they need it – and what kind of effects this long-term behaviour might have.
We know that no gender is immune to mental health issues such as anxiety and depression – and many of us struggle with our mental health every single day. The problem is that men are, in fact, much less likely to seek support for mental health issues. Because they are less likely to get help when they need it, they are at much higher risk of dying by suicide.
While a complex issue, the overall differences in help-seeking behaviours seen between men and women boil down to the outdated and rigid gender roles that persist in today’s society. Masculine stereotypes hold that men ought to be stoic and independent. While women are stereotyped as overly-emotional, classic teachings of masculinity view expressing emotion as a weakness and the choice to use emotions to guide decision making as irrational. Being raised and steeped in a culture of this “toxic masculinity” has left many men out-of-touch with their emotions – they might feel extremely uncomfortable with the idea of being vulnerable, or they might feel like they lack the emotional vocabulary to really put what they’re going through into words.
Asking someone for support with your mental health not only requires vulnerability, it also implies that you can’t get through this all on your own. For many men, this is an astoundingly difficult realization to come to. The truth is, no one should be left to suffer in silence, or to feel too ashamed to get the support they need with their mental health. If they had a broken leg, they would likely go to the doctor, and when their brains aren’t working the way they should, they should be able to get help in the same way without judgment. The stigma surrounding general mental illness combines with harmful, inaccurate ideas about the true meaning of masculinity – and creates the unfortunate environment where men don’t feel comfortable or safe asking for help. The question then becomes, what can we do to encourage the men in our lives to seek the support they might really need?
Learn how to recognize when they’re struggling
Keep in mind that just as men and women may seek help in different ways, they might also also have different ways of coping when something is wrong. While it’s common for women who are struggling to withdraw and dwell on negative emotions, men might be more likely to “act out.” This could look like poor impulse control, angry outbursts, or excessive alcohol or drug use. Identifying some of the different ways that the men in your life might be coping with difficult emotions or mental illness can help you recognize when they are in need of extra support. Although this tendency for men to “act out” when they’re struggling is supported by research, this won’t apply to every person in the same way. If someone you know is acting differently from their usual self and you are worried that they might be struggling, go with your gut, regardless of their gender.
Work to reduce the stigma around mental illness
The stigma surrounding mental illness affects people of all genders. However, this stigma combined with the strict societal expectations that men avoid expressing any emotion acts as yet another barrier to men getting mental health support. You can help by leading by example – talk openly about mental health and mental illness. It might even be helpful to talk about the many male celebrities who have begun sharing the stories of their own mental health struggles with the world. When a public figure opens up about the hard times in their life, such as their depression, substance abuse, or loneliness – society becomes a little less afraid of talking about it. Seeing that even traditionally masculine and successful men struggle and need support too may help to build an association between masculinity and help-seeking which, in turn, can help to normalize this behaviour in men and reduce feelings of shame and isolation.
Start the conversation
For some men, the most daunting part of accessing mental health support might be striking up that first conversation with someone they trust. Many men find the idea of being emotionally vulnerable with even their closest friends or family members outright terrifying (and they may even think it unnecessary). Acknowledge and validate this fear, but reassure them that asking for help with their mental health just as they would go to the hospital for a physical ailment, is the smart and logical thing to do. Let them know that they can confide in you, and that you won’t judge them or think any less of them for sharing their feelings. If they do open up, acknowledge how much courage it takes to talk about this kind of thing and how much of a testament to their resilience and strength it is. If they don’t feel comfortable opening up right away, avoid being pushy – focus on ensuring that they know you’re there for them if they do need someone to talk to. Sometimes, simply knowing that someone is looking out for them and wants to support them can be extremely powerful. While having loved ones that one can confide in and lean on is necessary for mental wellness, professional counselling is often also needed to address mental health concerns in an effective and long-lasting way. For tips on how to encourage someone you know to see a therapist, check out our article on that here.
We are all individuals and interact with the world in our own ways. For some, however, sociocultural pressures can significantly impede our ability to take care of our mental health, and we all need to be allies for those who need help but are too afraid to open up, or don’t know how.