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Stigma deters men from seeking mental healthcare

Deidre Ashley

June 28, 2017 | From Sound Mind | The Jackson Hole News & Guide

Last month we discussed some issues relevant to women’s mental health, so it only seems fair to give men some attention as well. June is not only when we celebrate Father’s Day, but it is also recognized as men’s health month.

Men’s mental health is important, but it doesn’t always get a great deal of attention.

Men make up almost 80 percent of suicide victims in the United States, and men living in small towns and rural areas have particularly high rates of suicide. In fact, Wyoming, Montana, New Mexico and Utah have the highest rates of suicide in the country. Yet men historically seek help for mental health issues less than women, but they experience mental illness at the same or greater numbers.

Even when men realize that they are depressed or struggling with substance abuse or some other problem, they are still less likely than women to seek help. Women make up about two-thirds of those who seek mental health treatment.

There are many theories about why men are less likely to seek treatment for issues like depression, anxiety, substance abuse and general stress.

• Stigma: There is a stigma associated with mental illness in general, and it can be even stronger for men who suffer from mental illness, given some perceived norms around masculinity.

• Masculine role socialization: Many boys learn at an early age that they are not supposed to express vulnerability. They are told to suppress most emotional responses, like crying.

• Social norms: This may become such a habit that by the time they reach adulthood they may be unaware of most emotions aside from anger, one of the few culturally sanctioned male emotions. ManTherapy.org reports that 1 in 10 men suffer from intermittent explosive disorder or rage.

For many men seeking assistance may be viewed in conflict with traditional masculine ideals of toughness, independence and emotional control or “grit.” A study published in the Psychology of Men found that “men with higher levels of traditional masculinity ideology also tended to have a more negative opinion of seeking psychological help.”

Men with these traditional views of masculinity may think society looks down on a man who can’t tough it out on his own. Seeking or needing help is viewed as abnormal behavior for men. Even men who seek counseling may worry about what others think of their need for help.

The reality, per the study mentioned above, is that men who score higher on a test of male gender role conflict — a conflict between rigid learned gender roles and the healthy expression of emotion — not only were more likely to be depressed, but also more likely to have a negative opinion of psychological counseling. This leaves many men in a double bind.

So, what can be done to encourage more men to seek treatment?

First, there is much work to be done to reduce the stigma attached to mental illness in general but especially with men. Men’s mental health should be recognized as a social issue like any other health issue, with attention paid to issues such as PTSD for veterans, unemployment and familial disruption.

In addition to stigma reduction there should be more choice in mental health treatment, with more “male” options that are focused on the unique needs of men.

One such approach is ManTherapy.org. The multiagency resource speaks to men about mental health using humor and support from other men to normalize mental health struggles and seeking help. In general men are more likely to seek mental health treatment for problems that they think other men share.

Some of the creative and humorous advertisements include messages like, “Get a few things off your hairy chest,” and my favorite, “You can’t fix your mental health with duct tape.”

Campaigns or approaches like these may go a long way to reducing what has been touted as the “silent crisis of men’s mental health.” 

Deidre Ashley is executive director of the Jackson Hole Community Counseling Center. She is a licensed clinical social worker and has a master’s degree in social work.