By Cindy Sutton | Hanna Center —
From a very young age, men are told they must be strong. Boys are often raised within very specific conceptual frameworks regarding gender roles. Whether implicit or explicit, social constructs define norms and expectations regarding personality traits, behaviors, and characteristics. Societal norms shape who we are, as much as biology does, by influencing our choices, strategies, and patterns to help us fit in.
Mental well-being is highly associated with self-control and willpower. Many believe that if people tried a little harder, they would not suffer from depression or anxiety. We would never hear such statements about a broken leg or diabetes; no one would ever be told to simply “walk it off.” In terms of norms associated with masculinity, boys are encouraged, pressured, and even rewarded when they follow specific ideas of what manhood should look like. Men are taught to be independent, strong, and driven, and to avoid what is perceived as feminine traits like showing signs of vulnerability, too much affection, or sensitivity.
Some behaviors are allowed, encouraged, and normalized, like displaying anger, violence, or sexual promiscuity, or engaging in heavy drinking. Early on, peer pressure and social conformity lead many men to drink alcohol to have fun or participate in male bonding activities. Drinking is welcomed, glamorized, and promoted in many contexts, which explains why many men end up turning to substances to regulate their emotions and numb negative feelings. This behavior leads to possible long-term maladaptive coping skills.
In the western world, men are four times more likely to die of suicide than women, more likely to use illicit drugs, more likely to face alcohol-related hospitalizations and death. Men are also more likely to become binge drinkers or die from an overdose. Although these statistics are
higher for men, men ask for help less often, in comparison to women. This is because men are not taught or encouraged to speak on what is truly going on inside them, for fear of feeling or looking weak or losing face. They would rather maintain composure on the outside and try to handle everything on their own. Men in substance abuse treatment are, most of the time, mandated to seek such treatment by the court, having been brought in on probation or DUIs. Commonly, they try to refuse treatment and they show more reluctance to ask for help. They also tend to minimize their issues, addictive patterns, or difficulties in their lives. Feelings and emotions that could be interpreted as signs of weakness are seen as shortcomings.
Therefore, it is important to normalize mental health and substance use disorder-related conversations, while providing education and creating safe, welcoming environments. It is crucial to work on deconstructing social norms.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month and coincides with the opening of the new Community Mental Health Hub at Hanna, offering individual, family, and group therapy, counseling, classes, and workshops to the underserved residents of Sonoma County. Counseling in group settings can be very beneficial in creating a sense of relatedness in men who decide to share their stories and understand they are not alone.
A trauma-informed care approach that includes cross-cultural and gender awareness is fundamental to breaking stereotypes – fundamental to help men, or anyone, speak up about their inner experiences and build connection, support, and functional coping skills to deal with feelings like sadness, grief, or loss.
We also need to be mindful and work as a society to transform norms, attitudes, and general beliefs regarding what masculinity should or should not be. Because, in the end, nothing embodies strength like daring to show vulnerability and courage. Together we can innovate and heal the very concept of masculinity and promote wider frames of reference for what masculinity means, allowing men to manage their emotions with more liberating, positive, and empowering experiences.
Cindy Chaed Sutton is the Substance Abuse Program Manager at Hanna Center. For more information please visit hannacenter.org/community-hub.