by John Barry
As world mental health day rolls around again this year, we might wonder how much attention and funding is being allocated to the mental health issues that disproportionately impact men, and what is being done to alleviate them. However rather than innovative new interventions and programmes, we are more likely to find masculinity or patriarchy blamed for men’s mental health problems.
Most of the main players in the world of mental health, such as the World Health Organisation, continue to overlook the fact that suicide and death from alcohol predominantly impacts men. All too often when these sex differences are identified, men are blamed for not seeking help. However this unfair allocation of blame doesn’t take into account the possibility that much of what is on offer does not appeal to male-typical ways of dealing with distress. This male gender blindness and victim-blaming are aspects of gamma bias, a widespread cognitive distortion that erodes empathy for men.
Although the suicide rates vary across cultures, men are more likely to die by suicide than women in almost every country worldwide. The cultural differences in this ratio suggests an impact of culture on suicide, but the fact that the vast majority of countries have more male cases of suicide than female suggests a deeper influence is at play.
Although male socialisation is often blamed for men’s mental health issues, it could be that male-typical ways of dealing with stress are undervalued in the prevailing mental health narrative. The fact that male suicide and substance abuse are higher in almost every country worldwide might be a clue that despite cultural differences, men internationally have different needs when it comes to dealing with distress. It could be that these sex differences have evolutionary roots, a possibility that is almost universally overlooked by the mainstream health services. By overlooking this influence, alternative interventions – based on harnessing adaptive aspects of coping mechanisms – are also overlooked.
The good news is that some charities and third sector organisations have realised that lots of men find mental health benefits in many activities outside the therapist’s office. For example, Men’s Sheds have – probably without intending to – demonstrated that mental health is not all expressing one’s feelings. Having said that, some types of mainstream psychological interventions can be extremely effective, but their specific tailoring to men’s mental health has been almost entirely overlooked.
The solution to men’s mental health problems will vary from man to man, but it is apparent that many of the authorities in mental health have been less than effective in their approaches to men’s mental health. It could be argued that a one-size-fits-all approach has been applied to patients regardless of their sex, using an approach that happens to fit women in general better than it fits men in general.
It would be very welcome if one year we woke up to find that World Mental Health day had started to recognise important gender differences in mental health and therapy.
Maybe one day.
About the author
Dr John Barry is a chartered psychologist and co-founder of the Male Psychology Section of the British Psychological Society. His new book Perspectives in Male Psychology, co-authored with Louise Liddon, will be published by Wiley around the end of 2020.
If you are feeling under stress, there are people who can offer advice and support. CALM offer advice on issues in general, and can be contacted here. For problems with domestic violence, contact the ManKind Initiative. For problems with family breakdown issues, contact Families Need Fathers.