Modern masculinity and mental health
Last updated 10/18/2022 at Noon
Note: The list of men I respect and admire is long. This commentary is from a place of care rather than critique. I am an observer and welcome other perspectives, and I think more dialogue is needed.
On August 28, my hometown of Bend was added to the long list of mass shootings as 20-year-old Ethan Miller fired over 100 rounds with a legally purchased AR-15 rifle through a local grocery store, killing two and wounding multiple others before taking his own life.
Since 1966, of the 196 mass shootings that have taken place, all but five were committed by male perpetrators (Washington Post, 2022). More than 40 percent of these male perpetrators were between the ages of 18 and 29 and another third between 30 and 45. Since Columbine, 311,000 students have been amongst an active shooter while at school. Among global mass shootings from 1998-2019, 73 percent of the 139 mass shootings occurred in the United States (Silva, 2022).
Men account for over 75 percent of completed suicides in the United States and rates of suicide are rising over recent decades. Sometimes termed, “suicide in slow motion,” substance abuse is historically higher for men, with rates three-to-one compared to women.
While many men and boys can navigate difficult emotions and circumstances without ever resorting to such violence or self-harm, the data demands we ask questions about the current state of emotional affairs among men and boys? Can we do better?
When we look at history, it seems that acts of violence have historically been far more perpetrated by men versus women. While there are noteworthy exceptions, men have also been historically charged with the duty to protect and defend. Are definable lines separating defensiveness and violence? The predisposition to physical aggression makes sense when considering evolutionary, hormonal, and anatomical factors, but certainly the societal landscape shapes how supposed innate tendencies are expressed.
The hero archetype is celebrated throughout popular culture. And yet, is there a superhero on the silver screen who gets the girl and saves the world without displaying his own physical prowess and aggression along the way? Can emotional vulnerability be equally as virtuous?
Can we celebrate physical strength, desires to protect and defend, while also applauding healthy emotional stewardship? Can we ask Superman about his feelings? The burden of trying to hold the world on his shoulders must be heavy at times — especially alongside classic American values of self-determination and individualism. Is he OK? Is anybody actually asking, or would we rather live in the myth of his emotional invincibility and tough exterior?
While there has been growing acceptance around concepts of vulnerability and seeking help, there continues to be a pervasive stigma impacting men and boys in expressing emotions outside a narrow spectrum.
In some circles, the list of acceptable male emotions is still very limited: anger, sarcasm, and apathy.
Masculine strength is still sometimes seen as greater in being emotionally detached and stoic versus connected and empathic.
Too often associated with weakness, sadness, shame, and fear are suppressed — sometimes replaced with anger that is too often associated with power.
In the quest to seek belonging and relevancy, this emotional censorship can lead to feelings of great disconnectedness and loneliness.
Remaining stigma is also converging with frequent comparison, social media, existential gloom, and fears of rejection made so easy in our digital age. It is easier than ever to exploit insecurities, to emasculate, and to shame. If there are no safe outlets to constructively process and emote, it is not surprising that it can all seem intolerable at times. Some seek to redeem this perceived loss of power and control through violence and/or physical harm, too often popularized as pathways to male relevancy.
We all have our shadows. Most all of us have encountered insecurity, the blush of embarrassment, and the pit of shame.
How do we react to emotional adversity? What constitutes healthy emotional stewardship? It is not reached by denial, numbing, or trying to mask in anger. It is reached first by the radical acceptance of our own humanity and emotional complexity. It is reached by our acknowledgment that struggle is a human experience made lighter when shared. It is reached by the skill of emotional awareness and our ability to identify our feelings as our own, which helps facilitate responsibility, accountability, and minimizes entitlement. When we can identify our emotion, it allows us to better have a constructive response. It facilitates self-care, boundaries, and empathy.
This starts with conversation and role modeling. This is perhaps best exemplified man-to-man, man-to-boy, boy-to-boy. It means confronting personal biases of gender and emotional expression. Can it become normalized for men and boys to inquire about each other’s feelings? Can we expand on ways of coping? Can we sit with the socially reinforced discomfort of male emotion without wanting to rush a quick fix?
Can traditional masculine values of courage, strength, honor, and mastery be fortified (not weakened) in a context of emotional awareness and connection rather than detachment?
If you are a man or a boy reading this and still have a healthy dose of skepticism about seeking mental health services, I get it. I am not fully on board myself with mainstream applications of mental health, but I am fully on board with the idea of not going through struggle alone. I worry most about the threat of loneliness and the burden of what you might be carrying. At least from where I am sitting, your strength is only more impressive when you take off your Superman cape and ask for help.
- Deschutes County Crisis Center 24/7 Hotline, 541-322-7500 x9
- National Suicide & Crisis 24/7 Hotline, dial 988
- Veterans Crisis Line 24/7, dial 988 and press 1; text 838255.