Toxic masculinity and boys’ mental health

For many in Scotland, anger and aggression are still part of what it means to be ‘manly’, a stereotype that is driving mental ill health among young males, writes Ross Deuchar
26th April 2019, 12:03am
Calling Time On Toxic Masculinity
Ross Deuchar


Toxic masculinity and boys’ mental health

I grew up around a family where the men, it was sort of the case that men didn't feel. I'm starting to come out of the fear of used to be the case I'd freeze if somebody put their arms around me."

These are the words of "Ryan", just one of the young men I have had the privilege of working with as part of my research in recent years. The subtle messages he received about masculinity while growing up indicated that men should avoid showing their feelings, expressing emotion or displaying affection. This clearly had an impact on him, and his fear of affection and inability to open up ultimately led him into crime. When I met him, he was in the early stages of a prison sentence. But he also suffered from mental ill health, and described to me how he had recently been placed on "suicide watch" within the prison.

In Scotland, I believe there are still deeply ingrained and problematic views about what it means to be and act "like a man". In too many male social contexts, the display of aggression and even violence is often viewed as "manly", while any emotional expression (aside from anger) is regarded as soft or even "feminine". But this stifling of certain types of emotional engagement and expression can lead to deep-rooted mental health issues.

Statistics suggest that over three-quarters of people who take their own lives in Scotland are men, and suicide rates among younger men have increased year on year. Results from a recent survey commissioned by the Samaritans suggest that more than a third of Scottish men do not seek support when they need it, and prefer to solve their problems on their own. While 80 per cent of male survey participants felt it was OK to admit you're not feeling OK, many still avoided speaking out when they were finding life tough.

The footballer Kris Boyd lost his brother to suicide in 2016. He has since become an advocate for tackling mental health problems among young men, and was recently quoted as saying that "it can be a male thing in Scotland to act the tough man…but the reality is if people open up and speak it can help everyone". In Scotland (and perhaps especially in the west of the country), young males often feel they have to "man up" and these messages are sometime conveyed by father figures at home and reinforced by peers. "Manning up" is often constructed around the perceived need to avoid revealing vulnerable emotions, to display bravery, toughness and physical prowess.

Boys who display sensitivity, emotion or vulnerability or who "call out" inappropriate forms of male behaviour (including sexism or physical violence) still run the risk of being ridiculed by their peers. The word "gay" is too often still inappropriately used as a derogatory term, and boys made to feel they need to perform masculinity within a very narrow set of cultural parameters.

Social media can play a detrimental role here, where hurtful statements are shared and re-shared within peer groups and young men feel unable to disconnect from it. This sometimes leads to boys feeling the need to engage in homophobic policing of themselves and others to avoid any signs of perceived femininity and weakness. The pressure associated with this, or the taunts that can emerge when signs of vulnerability become exposed, can increase the prevalence of low mood that can be a precursor for anxiety, depression and even suicide.

Schools can challenge these misguided perceptions and attitudes, and ultimately prevent the potential negative consequences for young men. The Scottish government's Mental Health Strategy 2017-27 recommends that all teachers receive improved mental health training, a view shared by the Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH). Recent data published by the Scottish government suggests that some teacher-education programmes provide as little as 15 hours of health and wellbeing training over the course of a four-year degree. Teachers need to come into the profession more prepared for recognising signs and helping to prevent mental ill health from emerging in the first place. But they also need to be conscious of the hyper-masculine culture that still prevails in parts of Scotland and know how to tackle this head-on.

'Manly' positivity

Teachers at all stages of the system need to explore with male pupils what it means to be a man, getting them to think about the messages they receive from society and carefully helping to challenge and disrupt the stereotypes. The health and wellbeing "experiences and outcomes" in Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) place an emphasis on the need for pupils to recognise the role of "friendship, caring, sharing, equality and love in building positive relationships".

Teachers can play an important role in fostering emotional diversity in boys by encouraging them to open up and talk about their feelings. Boys can then begin to associate vulnerability, generativity, compassion and love with positive "manly" relationships. Role models can help, and male teachers need to avoid the risk of reinforcing and validating the "tough guy" image. They need to become advocates for displaying emotion and sharing role models of those who fall outside the narrow template of hegemonic masculinity. Importantly, teachers also need to be alert to homophobic bullying and language, and to encourage pupils to speak out against all forms of violence, harassment, name-calling and bullying.

Considerable numbers of young men are now abusing steroids in Scotland, simply to cultivate the "perfect" physique and conform to the male images found in lifestyle magazines, reality TV and social media. On one hand, the proven physical and psychological repercussions of steroid misuse are colossal. But, in a wider sense, teenage boys who are continually bombarded with idealised images online can also go on to suffer from body dysmorphic disorder: so-called "bigorexia", where they become obsessed with trying to look physically bigger. And some may also develop eating disorders such as anorexia because of a misguided fear of not being "ripped" enough to achieve those apparently perfect looks. While young women still make up the majority seen for eating disorders in the NHS, over the past decade the number of boys going into hospital has doubled, perhaps due to increasing obsessions with body shape.

As part of the health and wellbeing curriculum in Scottish secondary schools, I believe it is important to develop partnerships from the world of sport to help educate pupils about the risks of steroid use, while also informing them about the benefits and possibilities of building physical fitness in natural ways. Sports coaches, personal trainers and athletes should be invited into the classroom to share their experiences, but alternative images of the masculine physique could also be shared and celebrated.

In modern studies and health and wellbeing classes, pupils can also be encouraged to think about and reflect on different representations of male physiques and how notions of ideal body image have changed throughout history. Critiquing the body images they are confronted with online is also important, encouraging teenage boys to realise how careful digital and photo editing can help to construct misleading and unrealistic images of "perfect" abs, pecs and biceps. In so doing, teachers can help to address the CfE focus on developing a full and well-informed understanding of the human body, and help pupils to improve their mental wellbeing and health.

The latest figures suggest there has been a 20 per cent rise in referrals to specialist Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) and that around one-fifth of Scottish teenagers experience mental health problems each year. Causes of this mental health epidemic across the country are difficult to pin down, but recent research commissioned by SAMH suggests that inequalities play a role, with more young people suffering from mental ill-health in areas of social deprivation. The high prevalence of recent suicides in Ayrshire among young men supports this, given that some of the most deprived datazones in the country are located there. "

Adverse childhood experiences" (ACEs) also play a role, and many of the stories of young men I have worked with suggest a strong relationship between early experiences of abuse, neglect and household dysfunction, with later experiences of mental ill health.

As with Ryan's case, my research with young men has illustrated that emotional and psychological distress often initially manifests itself in ways that do not always immediately signal deep-rooted mental health issues. For example, during interviews many have described to me the way in which they became alcohol and drug dependent and/or aggressive or violent - and only later realised that this emerged because of exposure to ACEs. Many of the men I have worked with have evidently failed to recognise early warning signals, and then begun to self-medicate and/or engage in criminal activity as a means of helping them to cope.

Teachers need to recognise the symptoms and the causes. Enmeshing the most disadvantaged in an ethos of unconditional support and compassion is important, and encouraging young men to view the seeking of social support as a sign of maturity rather than weakness. Creating spaces for dialogue is also essential. In one programme I observed in the US, young men were encouraged to discuss and think through their personal situations and dilemmas during group discussions but also through poetry. The latter enabled them to give and receive positive affirmation in safe spaces and within the context of a therapeutic community.

Adopting an ACE-aware, trauma-informed approach helps to address the CfE focus on enabling pupils to recognise that thoughts and emotions can affect the way they feel and to learn about ways of managing them. One way of doing this is through meditation. Through engaging in mindfulness and other holistic practices, I have seen young men who have experienced ACEs find new ways of managing stress and anxiety. Many have experienced increased feelings of calmness and eudemonic wellbeing through slowly developing a non-judging, accepting, "beginner's mind" and allowing distressing thoughts and emotions to pass by without being moved to anger or aggression.

As we continue in our battle to overcome the epidemic of mental ill-health that currently blights our communities and the particular challenges associated with young male suicide, a lot of work remains to be done. However, it is encouraging to know that a cultural shift is beginning to happen. The stigma associated with mental health is shifting, male role models are opening up about their own personal struggles and more support groups are beginning to emerge that encourage men to start talking. Prince Harry was recently heard to say that "you need to know a part of being strong and tough is having the courage to ask for help when you need it". I believe that teachers can instil this courage among young men, by projecting and celebrating multi-faceted views of masculinity in the classroom, tackling and breaking down stereotypes, and supporting their resilience to overcome early life adversity.

In so doing, perhaps we can help to ensure that future generations of men avoid becoming like those who surrounded Ryan during his formative years.

Ross Deuchar is professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of the West of Scotland, and a former assistant dean of education. He tweets @rossdeuchar

This article originally appeared in the 26 April 2019 issue under the headline "Calling time on toxic masculinity" 

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