Adele Wolstenhulme
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Men and mental health – are men more emotional than women?

The Statistics

When he was Prime Minister, David Cameron pledged almost a billion pounds in an attempt to address the mental health crisis which has gripped the UK.  Speaking on the topic, David Cameron made mention to the four most common mental health issues in under 21’s; anxiety, depression, self-harm and eating disorders.  According to experts, these mental health issues have collectively risen by 600% in Britain over the past decade; hospitalisations for self-harm and eating disorders have doubled in the past three years and unexpected deaths arising from mental health conditions have soared by 20% over the same period.

Making specific mention of teenagers with eating disorders and mothers suffering from postpartum depression and psychosis, what was very clear was that information regarding men and mental health was rather sparse to say the least!  It has been widely reported that suicide is now the biggest killer of men under 50 in the UK, accounting for 1 in 4 deaths in men under the age of 35.  According to an article in The Telegraph, three times as many men are regular drug users than women.  It seems that whilst women are seeking help for mental and emotional health issues, men are self-medicating. Whilst women might attempt suicide (attempted suicide rates are higher in women) men are ‘succeeding’ at it.

The Stigma surrounding men and emotions

Growing up, many boys encounter what Dr William Pollack termed in his book, ‘The Boy Code’, a set of expectations on how boys and men should think, feel and act: “be tough, don’t cry, go it alone, and don’t show any emotion except for anger.”

Combined with the traditional chauvinistic image of men as the breadwinner, the ‘protector, and provider’, these characteristics of traditional manliness and the stigma attached to any male who does not abide by these characteristics can cause men to perceive mental health problems as weakness and failure, thus not seek the necessary help they need when experiencing issues with stress, anxiety, depression or any other mental health illness.  Men are significantly less likely to access psychological therapies than women. During the first 3 quarters of 2015, men were only 36% of those accessing psychological therapies.

‘Be a man, suck it up, don’t cry,’ are a few phrases handpicked from an ample basket of ego-damaging constructions built into today’s society he believes.  Reinforcing rhetoric that feminises emotional expression, and therefore views violence as masculine, has the power to stunt empathy, drive dominance, and confuse respect with fear. Boys are born just as loving as girls, but at a very young age they are taught the traits, diminutive language, and mindset that aligns them with society’s concept of what it means to be a man.

The Biology Bit

As Pollack discredits the myths that boys are less empathic and loving than girls, he exposes the patterns of behaviour and emotional responses that are specific to them. Whilst girls communicate verbally, boys express their emotions through actions rather than words.  

Although it’s widely believed that men don’t cry but instead maintain a stiff upper lip, a rather surprising study in 2014 showed that men are, in fact, more emotional than women.  A group of 15 fathers and 15 mothers were presented with images and videos categorised into blissful, funny, exciting and heart-warming scenarios, while their physiological reactions were measured using skin conductance electrodes.  The study was intended to see which scenarios would be best used for Father’s Day cards.  Men demonstrated a marginally higher emotional reaction to the blissful, funny and exciting content compared to the women, but responded twice as strongly as women when presented with heart-warming content.  An accompanying questionnaire found that even though the men reported feeling less emotion than the women, their physiological changes showed they felt emotion more strongly.  The study suggests that men feel emotion just as much as women, sometimes more strongly, but are less willing to express these emotions openly.

Often emotional differences between genders come down to their physiological make-up.  The female brain will often ruminate on and revisit emotional memories much more than the male brain.  Men, in general, are designed a bit differently. Men tend, after reflecting more briefly on an emotive memory, to analyse it somewhat, then move on to the next task. During this process, they may also choose to change course and do something active and unrelated to feelings, rather than analyse their feelings more deeply. Thus, observers may mistakenly believe that men avoid feelings in comparison to women when in fact they simply have a different way of approaching, and subsequently handling, them.

Conclusion

In my opinion,it seems the mental health problem in men might actually be a problem with emotional literacy.  It seems that men just don’t have the right tools to express exactly what they’re feeling, and we, as a collective society have exaggerated the problem through the creation of this image of masculinity that dictates men as strong individuals that aren’t seen to cry or talk about their feelings unless as an expression of anger.  

Without an outlet or opportunity to foster healthy emotional expression, men dominate suicide statistics and it’s no coincidence that they are the gender more likely to suppress emotions. Suffering beneath the gravity of conventional masculinity, men resort to violence or extreme behaviours, desperate to express themselves, yet unable to fit the stereotype of what it means to be ‘a real man.’ The frustration can quickly build, fester, and ultimately manifest into shame and humiliation.  Feeling such a sense of failure, many men experience severe mental health issues unable to find a way out or seek the help they need.  So whilst women are able to publicize their unhappiness because they have been given the tools to weave together beautiful, expressive words, men may stay silent. If they do get upset, young men especially teenagers, risk being branded ‘a girl!’.

So what can be done?

  1. If you or someone you know is emotionally distressed or in crisis, the most important first step is to talk. Begin a conversation with a friend, family member, health professional or support service and allow yourself to express what you think the issue is.Often the first step is the recognition that the issue is a big one
  2. Reach out to your family and let them know you are in need of support. Help them work out what you need rather than having them guess. This may be nothing more than a hug when you come home but it is something specific and children in particular, like to feel they can be useful
  3. Pick very close friends or business colleagues and share the bones of the issue if you can. They can, and often do, appreciate being involved especially if the problem is one they could actually help resolve. If they really can’t help pick the friends who make you feel positive, and with whom you can be yourself even if you have to say ‘things are a bit rough right now’ and downplay it for the purposes of protecting your privacy.
  4. It can, and very often is, vital to seek support though. You would not attempt to carry on regardless if you’d broken your leg so emotional pain such as grief, disappointment, and changes in direction because your business or life is not going to plan, need input. There are business advisers, mentors, coaches and people like me out there. Doctors if you need medical advice, counsellors for deep sadness – but the first step is to reach out. So many issues in life can be influenced if not repaired, so please don’t feel the need to stay quiet. Seeking support, input and guidance is a sign of self-awareness and self-respect. You are recognising something you need and that is important. Teaching your children that it’s ‘ok’ to come to you is repeated in kind if you feel it’s ok to go to someone too.

    Guest blog by Sue Firth.
Adele Wolstenhulme