Is masculinity in crisis? Masculinity and mental health in the UK today

First published in The World Today as ‘Loosening the male stiff upper lip’, Dec & Jan 2017/18 edition, available here

 

Without a doubt, men are capable of doing bad things. Horrifying things. We fill newspapers each day with the bad things men do. Some of this bad behaviour may be associated with the failure of men to adapt to cultural shifts since the 1960s, which have redefined their role in society. Indeed, it is common for people to talk about a crisis in masculinity, and even more ominously, of ‘toxic masculinity’.

The study of masculinity in psychology began in the 1990s and developed a deficit model, focusing mainly on problems attributed to masculinity. For example, masculinity was said to impose on men a narrow set of values and views, which leads to problems such as misogyny and homophobia. The crisis in masculinity today is said to be about men struggling to find their place in a world that no longer values the traditional male role of the breadwinner and stoical defender of the family. In 2013, Diane Abbott, the current shadow home secretary, described how rapid social change has left today’s men in a cultural tornado of traditional values, pornography and male cosmetics. She suggested that the path forward is a combination of a more flexible view of masculinity, strengthening the bond between fathers and children, and improving educational and career outcomes for men, but without making this a required part of masculinity.

A few months ago I led a survey of 2,000 men born or resident in the British Isles (Barry & Daubney, 2017). We asked these men which core values were most important to them. We also asked them about the importance they place on values around various aspects of life – for example, work, romance, education − and we assessed how much their values were related to their mental wellbeing.I  that men rated qualities such as honesty and reliability over adventurousness and athleticism. The most important predictors of their wellbeing were job satisfaction and being in a stable relationship. Other predictors were valuing health as a way to live longer, personal authenticity and being like their father. These findings suggest that if there is a masculinity crisis, it is a crisis facing those men who don’t enjoy their work, don’t have a stable relationship, don’t value their health, don’t feel good about themselves and don’t want to be like their father.

We might conclude from my survey that we need more occupational psychologists to help men feel good about work, couples counsellors to help men achieve stable relationships, and so on. These might help, but we need to bear in mind the research telling us that when men have problems, they are less inclined than women to want to talk about their feelings as a way of coping (Matud, 2004). This reluctance to talk about feelings is often interpreted as a stubborn clinging to traditional male stoicism, but this interpretation is not particularly useful to psychologists, for two reasons. Firstly, we are failing to be ‘client-centred’ or empathic in the way that we would normally be, in that when it comes to men we generally fail to appreciate and meet the client’s needs for therapy, and instead we expect them to adapt to our idea of what therapy should be. Secondly, we are presuming that men should talk about their feelings in the same way that women tend to. Evidence, however, suggests that although men benefit from talking about their feelings, the approach required might be more indirect than with women.  For examle, men may prefer to open up about their feelings while engaging in other activities rather than talking as an end in itself, or have a different ‘port of entry’ to talking about feelings, such as by focusing on problem solving initially and talking about feelings later (Holloway et al, in review). Though we usually see men’s sexuality as a problem, recent research has found that men are more likely than women to use sex and pornography as ways of coping with stress. These are complex issues, but ones that we need to address if we are to support men’s mental health.

Given the high rates of suicide among men, and other signs of mental health issues − such as substance abuse and anti-social behaviour − any crisis of masculinity is not being alleviated by the inertia of the psychology profession when it comes to understanding the mental health needs of men. To paraphrase what the comedian Mo Gilligan said at the launch of the Harry’s Masculinity Report at Westminster in November this year: ‘If I’m feeling depressed and someone says to me “open up”, I just say “I’m fine” and shut down. But if my friends challenge me about my mood with a bit of banter, I open up.’ To say that men commit suicide because they stubbornly refuse to talk about their feelings sounds more like victim blaming than an intelligent attempt to understand men.

If men in Britain are in crisis, we are probably not helping by taking a negative view of masculinity, for example by labelling certain behaviours as ‘toxic masculinity’. From what we know about research into self-fulfilling prophecy, ‘giving a dog a bad name’ only makes behaviour worse (Sharma & Sharma, 2015). We don’t talk about toxic Islam or toxic Blackness for the obvious reason that such terms inevitably lend themselves to being extended unfairly from extreme cases to the entire group. On the other hand, learning to see the good things about masculinity may well allow for better mental health and behavioural outcomes for men.

Positive psychology is a relatively new field, and its application to masculinity has yet to be properly explored. I think that it is time that we followed the lead of psychologists such as Mark Kiselica and Matt Englar-Carlson in the United States, and experts in the Male Psychology Network in the UK, such as Martin Seager, and take a more positive view of masculinity (e.g. Kiselica & Englar-Carlson, 2010). Recognizing the good things about men and masculinity doesn’t mean ignoring the bad things men do, or ignoring the problems facing other demographic groups. But if masculinity is in crisis, let’s show some compassion and be part of the solution.

 

You can vote for a Male Psychology of the BPS between 7th May and 20th June.
Details are here http://www.malepsychology.org.uk/male-psychology-network/vote-for-a-male-psychology-section/

 

References

Abbott, D. (2013). Britain’s crisis of masculinity’. A Demos Twentieth Birthday Lecture, Magdalen House, London16www.demos.co.uk/files/DianeAbbottspeech16May2013.pdf

Barry, J. A. & Daubney, M. (2017). The Harry’s Masculinity Report. http://www.malepsychology.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/The-Harrys-Masculnity-Report-2017.pdf

Holloway, K., Seager, M., & Barry, J. A. (in review). Are clinical psychologists and psychotherapists overlooking the gender-related needs of their clients?

Kiselica, M. S., & 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, Training, 47(3), 276. http://psycnet.apa.org/record/2010-20923-002

Liddon, L., Kingerlee, R., & Barry, J. A. (2017). Gender differences in preferences for psychological treatment, coping strategies, and triggers to help‐seeking. British Journal of Clinical Psychology http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/bjc.12147/full 

Matud, M. P. (2004). Gender differences in stress and coping styles. Personality and individual differences, 37(7), 1401-1415 http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0191886904000200

Sharma, N., & Sharma, K. (2015). ‘Self-Fulfilling Prophecy’: A Literature Review. International Journal of Interdisciplinary and Multidisciplinary Studies (IJIMS)2(3), 41-42.  http://www.ijims.com/uploads/785e9b598a2e5fcd04ef157.pdf

 

Biography of author

John Barry is one of the founders of the Male Psychology Network. After completing his PhD in psychological aspects of polycystic ovary syndrome, he joined University College London’s Institute for Women’s Health at the UCL Medical School in 2011. Since then he has published over 50 papers in various peer-reviewed journals, including in international-standard journals in gynaecology, cardiology and ophthalmology. Prompted by the considerable suicide rates among men and the establishment’s inertia in dealing with men’s mental health problems, in 2011 John led an independent research programme investigating the mental health needs of men and boys. John specialises in research methods (especially surveys and questionnaire development) and statistical analysis (e.g. meta-analysis, meta-regression), currently practices clinical hypnosis on a part-time basis and is an honorary lecturer with the Department of Psychology, University College London. Email john.barry@ucl.ac.uk

 

 

 

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