There is a divergence between what men externalise as expectations from society and what they agree with. For example in research The Man Box, 55% of respondents agreed that society tells them real men never say no to sex, while 33% say they agree. 45% say society is telling them that men should do household chores, while 27% agree or strongly agree themselves. In this way they are externalising male stereotyping and acting to comply with societal expectations or even a form of tribalism.
Attempts to shift thinking toward openness in men, to talking and sharing have been somewhat clumsy. “man up” as a message tries to attach more caring, sharing and openness to a male strereotype, whilst at the same time offers shame and reinforces the social construct of the “man” gender. The message “its OK not to be OK” seems to fully reinforce a deficit model of not being OK when compared to some hidden norm, while attempting to positivise the deficit into a positive labelled “OK”
This deficit position is one that creates shame for men and is one of the very reasons while men find it difficult to identify and discuss feelings and emotions. It seems men need re-educating and instructing on the deeply buried emotions and feelings that have been socially suppressed. Mental health and suicide messages based around statistic alone fail to land because they do not help men to understand what to do now or next. Identifying that three quarters of men are unable to talk about how they feel is not a call to action, or indeed instructive. At best, such messages fall into a “so-what” category of indifference, or at worst man-shaming. Taken further the shaming of men for not having more feminine attributes, both shames men and reinforces the socialised gender differences, thus being counterproductive.
A concept of manfulness may be more useful, however we do have to recognise the “man” component comes fully loaded. This idea promotes valueas and behaviours such as flexible, open minded, Self-Identity, Comfortable in own skin, tender, emotional, caring, honest, loyal, compassionate, self aware, family orientated, kin, confident, responsible, respectful, appreciative. These and other ways of acting and behaving are far less gender loaded and provide more instruction of how to be, how to act rather than garnering feminine traits.
Leaders who exhibit behaviours and actions are more likely to change men, than shaming. An example might be The England football manager Gareth Soutgate who exhibits emotionality towards players, sees no shame in embrace and hugs.
Men have a lower tendency to seek professional help for mental health conditions than women (Addis & Mahalik, 2003). Further, men report a lower likelihood of seeking help from informal help sources (i.e. friends) for common mental health conditions than women (Weissman & Klerman, 1977) Help seeking needs encouragement and instruction, but first men need to recognise and accept the need for support. As men have performed a life of emotional suppression and denial it may well be difficult for them to label and accept what they are feeling and rank that above shame and stigma. In addition the fear of shame and exposure through not being able to see a psychologically safe place in which they may choose to open up. By seeing other men as examples and hearing their stories they may be encouraged rather than shamed into action.
We need to change the narrative – to reinforce what a good kind caring man is and how he has mastery of his emotions and feelings. The gains are being a better person, better human not a better “man” By reinforcing what is gained from this shift we are not fighting against “the bonds of masculinity” that cause men to push back through learned masculine traits.
Even the terms we use such as “mental health” have become loaded and associated with shame and a deficit model, this creates labelling that in turn becomes rejected. Instructing men to “talk” about their mental health fights to male stereotypical socialised model. Through normalisation demonstrated by leaders, role models story tellers and peers we have more opportunity to show by example what desirable behaviours and outcomes look like. And finally we need to signal safe spaces where men can feel confident to take that step down a different path.