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Men And Mental Health Stigma

by Carmen McCrackin ❘  

Men’s Mental Health: Why Stigma Silences So Many Men

The month of May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and while the open discourse on mental health has changed drastically over the past decade, there is still a distinct disconnect between men and mental health. The problem goes well beyond the misconception that men don’t want to express their emotions; barriers like stigma, masculine norms, and societal factors directly impact the way men think about, approach, and treat their mental health.

Although all genders are affected by mental illness, it is often overlooked in men as they are less likely in comparison to women to speak of or seek help for their mental health. This is alarming in context to the statistic that in high-income countries, 3 times as many men as women died by suicide in 2018, according to a World Health Organization (WHO) report.

These barriers that men often face when addressing and treating mental illness are nothing new. However, expanding conversations on why such barriers exist can bring awareness to the issue and help alleviate the feelings of shame or “otherness” that many men face regarding mental health.

Men’s Mental Health Statistics

According to Mental Health America (MHA), there are 5 primary mental illnessnes that men in the US face, including depression, anxiety, psychosis and schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and eating disorders.

6

million

In the US today, over 6 million men suffer from depression each year.

3

million

More than 19 million adults ages 18 to 54 have an anxiety disorder, with over 3 million men having either an anxiety disorder, agoraphobia, or another phobia.

90

percent

Ninety percent of those diagnosed with schizophrenia by age 30 are men.

What Is Stigma?

In theory, addressing one’s mental health with others should be similar to discussing a broken bone or any other physical ailment, but stigma silences many men. Stigma not only bars men from speaking to their loved ones about mental illness but also from addressing it themselves or seeking help. Several types of stigma affect men’s relationship with mental health, including social stigma, self-stigma, professional stigma, and cultural stigma.

Social Stigma

Social stigma refers to the negative attitudes or stereotypes directed toward a person or group experiencing a mental illness. An example of this would the negative attitude that “those who have depression are weak.” This external form of stigma is rooted in the misconception that mental illness represents a person’s character. This misconception leads to discrimination, avoidance, and rejection of a person experiencing a mental illness.

Self-Stigma

Self-stigma, also known as perceived stigma, is an internal form of stigmatization that one imposes on themselves. An individual experiencing self-stigma will internalize the negative views and opinions of mental illnesses, which leads to judgment and shame about one’s symptoms.

Professional Stigma

Professional stigma occurs when healthcare professionals perpetuate stigmatization toward their patients through negative attitudes. These attitudes are often based on fear or misunderstandings of the causes and symptoms of mental illness. Additionally, professionals themselves can experience stigma from the public or other healthcare professionals because of their work and connection with individuals experiencing mental illness.

Cultural Stigma

Cultural stigma involves how an individual’s culture interprets mental illness. Culture shapes one’s beliefs, values, and norms, and it directly relates to how people attribute meaning to certain illnesses. Culture also affects whether people seek help, what type of help they seek, and their coping style and support.

Masculine Norms Shape Discussions On Mental Illness

Another barrier for men facing mental health issues is the indoctrination of masculine norms in US culture and society. Masculine norms are the social rules and expected behavior associated with men and manhood within a given culture. The phrases “toughen up,” “man up,” “men don’t cry,” etc., perpetuate the idea that men are not supposed to express sadness, grief, or pain, and to do so is the ultimate sign of weakness or femininity (at times considered one of the same). These masculinity standards contribute to men not seeking professional help for their mental health in fear of their masculinity being diminished.

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Moreover, men are less likely to seek treatment than women due to downplaying their symptoms, a result of self-stigma, and a reluctance to talk about their mental health. Men in America, and throughout many cultures, are often not taught or socialized to discuss their emotions or troubles. If anything, it is discouraged. In contrast, most women are taught how and in what way to express themselves, while most men are left out of the conversation entirely. In context to men’s mental health, this lack of emotional acceptance leaves many in the dark: unable to speak of their troubles, and some are even unable to name them to themselves.

Specific Barriers For Men Of Color And Mental Health

Beyond stigma and masculine norms, men of color face additional challenges and risk factors that have historically affected their mental health and how they approach it. Risk factors that affect men of color include higher exposure to poverty and violence, absence of economic opportunity, and higher incarceration rates. The result is a compounding hit on mental health; between the stigmatization of all men seeking help and unique stressors, men of color are at higher risk for isolation and mental illness. However, this higher risk does not correlate to higher treatment admission rates. In a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only 26.4% of Hispanic and non-Hispanic Black men went in for mental health treatments compared to 45.6% of non-Hispanic White men.

Another significant barrier for many men of color is cultural stigma and mistrust of the healthcare system. Historically speaking, documented racism and bias within the healthcare system have led some Black people to be wary of seeking treatment. According to research by the National Library of Medicine and Dr. Neal-Barnett, a leading expert on anxiety disorders among Black Americans, there is a collective mistrust of healthcare and medical providers among Black patients. This mistrust is linked to the abuse Black patients have historically experienced under the guise of medical testing and advancement, like in the case of the US Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee. Factor in the cultural stigma of Black masculinity norms that make it difficult for Black men to be vulnerable and express emotions, and it makes sense why it is difficult for many Black men to pursue professional help for their mental health.

Dual Diagnosis Among Men: Mental Health And Substance Abuse

A dual diagnosis, or co-occurring disorder, is when an individual has one or more mental health disorders combined with a substance use disorder (SUD). Often, mental health disorders and SUDs concurrently occur because some struggling with a mental illness will use substances to self-medicate, and substance abuse can sharply increase or even trigger new symptoms related to a mental health disorder. While co-occurring disorders can affect anyone regardless of gender, certain substance use disorders are more prevalent among men. 

For example, the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that men are more likely than women to use almost all illicit or illegal drugs. Regarding alcohol use disorders (AUDs), 1 in 5 men will develop alcohol dependence during their lives. Another point of concern is since men are less likely than women to seek treatment for health concerns and substance abuse, the presence of co-occurring disorders among men could potentially be under-reported. 

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Moving Forward

Despite the norms, stigmas, and specific risk factors that contribute to men struggling with their mental health and receiving treatment for it, more and more men are coming forward to share their personal experiences. Male athletes and celebrities, like Michael Phelps, Chance the Rapper, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, have come forward with stories about their experiences with anxiety and depression. Speaking up about one’s experiences with mental illness directly challenges the stigma around it, opening the doors for others to come forward.

Regardless of societal, cultural, or even self-expectations, what’s most important is for individuals to receive the help and treatment they may need for their mental health. Asking for help is the first step, and if you’re not sure where to start, contact a treatment provider today for more information.

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