Reprinted from "Men's" issue of Visions Journal, 2005, 2 (5), p. 4
Just as the Winter 2004 Visions issue examined mental health and addictions issues facing women, this edition looks at these issues from the male perspective. Men live at the intersection between biology and culture, and the resulting predispositions, societal pressures, and cultural expectations create mental health challenges unique to their gender.
There are physical differences in brain structures and hormonal patterns between the sexes. The male neurological and biochemical makeup results in men having greater risk for certain neurological disorders, including autism, mental retardation, learning disabilities, and ADHD. However, there is another factor that is critical to consider when attempting to understand the male experience. That factor is what William Pollack, in his books on growing up male, calls the “Boy Code.”1
The Boy Code is a set of expectations about how males should think, feel and act. Those expectations are: “be tough,” “don’t cry,” “go it alone,” “don’t show any emotion except for anger.” This is not to deny that there are variations in the way masculinity is experienced and expressed across cultures and social strata, but there is no doubt that most men growing up in North America have been exposed to similar expectations about what it means to be a man. Thus, whether straight or gay, working class or middle class, of South Asian or European descent, men have grown up knowing there are certain ‘masculine’ characteristics they are expected to adopt.
Understanding the Boy Code and other gendered sociocultural patterns helps to explain how it is that being female is a risk factor for internalizing disorders such as anxiety and depression, while being male is a risk factor for suicide completion, for alcohol and drug dependency, and for externalizing disorders such as antisocial personality disorder.
There are many characteristics of traditional masculinity that are positive and beneficial: being strong, courageous, willing to work hard and willing to sacrifice oneself to protect family and society in times of danger. And many masculine characteristics appear to be protective factors that help men to be at reduced risk for developing anxiety and depressive disorders. Most men do not over-focus on feelings. They tend to be more action-oriented, have higher self-esteem and more selfconfidence, and do not over-analyze things, thus avoiding the paralysis of analysis. As well, most men appear to be able to compartmentalize well, a skill necessary for keeping things in perspective.
When these good characteristics become overemphasized or distorted, however, they can contribute to mental health and addiction problems for men. Being too action-oriented may cause men to ignore feelings. Too little analysis leads to not dealing with subtleties in relationships. Being too self-sufficient and believing that they must go it alone makes men unable to ask for help when they need it. Men who avoid experiencing or talking about ‘unmanly’ feelings such as sadness or fear may be at increased risk for using alcohol or drugs to mask those feelings. And finally, men who are primed to expect quick solutions to problems may not have the patience to stick with a program of therapy. Thus, balance is needed.
On the whole, boys show weaker language skills and lag in the development of emotional regulatory capabilities, putting them at greater risk for developing externalizing disorders in childhood.2 And there is evidence that as boys move through adolescence, they experience a decrease in their ability to appropriately handle emotions such as fear or sadness.3 As a result, by the time older adolescent males are getting ready to enter into serious relationships, they are actually less able to identify, talk about and appropriately share their feelings than they were when they were young adolescents.
Balance is the key. Too much or too little of an emotion like anger can be a problem. We all have seen the negative effects of male rage. But a stifling of anger can also be a problem; an unhealthy inhibition of anger has been found to be associated with increased risk for cancer.
What is needed is a healthy feeling of, and a healthy expression of, anger: feeling the energy of anger, but calmly deciding how to act it out, and most important of all, separating out the feelings that usually precede anger, especially anxiety and frustration. Men who flash quickly to irritation or anger often overlook, and thus do not deal with, their anxiety.
A significant challenge for those of us working with or living with males is to demonstrate that we are trustworthy, that we will not ridicule or shame them. We can do this by emphasizing the positives of being a male while also finding ways to assist boys and men in getting any help they need. Part of this is assuring them that we do not consider them less masculine by having a failing or weakness, or by needing to ask for help.
It is fear that hamstrings many of us men. Fear that admitting we can’t go it alone will trigger outside ridicule by women and other men. Fear that admitting we need assistance will cause us to feel like less of a man on the inside.
This issue of Visions is an indication of the work yet to be done to encourage men to utilize both the mental health and medical systems in BC and elsewhere.
About the Author
Aaron is a school psychologist and counsellor for students with mental health and behaviour disorders for the West Vancouver School District. He is also an adjunct professor in UBC’s Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology, and Special Education. Research interests include sexual harassment, sexual risk taking, and teen Internet use. Aaron has facilitated men’s counselling and support groups and has taught anger management and violence prevention skills to young men
Pollack, W. & Shuster, T. (2001) Real Boys’ Voices. New York: Penguin Group
Crick, N.R. & Zahn-Waxler, C. (2003). The development of psychopathology in females and males: Current progress and future challenges. Development and Psy- chopathology, 15, 719-742.
Polce-Lynch, M., Myers, B.J., Kliewer, W. et al. (2001). Adolescent self-esteem and gender: Exploring relations to sexual harassment, body image, media influence, and emotional expression. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 30, 225-244.