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OP-ED: Breaking the silence

  • Published at 02:23 am January 31st, 2021
mental health
Photo: BIGSTOCK

Why is it so hard to talk about mental health for men?

The issue of mental health has always been somewhat taboo in Bangladesh, particularly among men. For most of them, struggling with mental health issues means suffering in silence. Societal expectations and traditional gender roles play a pivotal role in determining why men are more likely to keep silent on their mental health problems. The existing stigma around acknowledging it, as well as problematic ideas of masculinity, often discourage men from seeking mental help.

We often discuss how gender stereotypes about women can be damaging to them. Unfortunately, we barely try to understand how gender stereotypes and expectations about men can be equally damaging to their wellbeing. Men are often expected to be the breadwinners, to be strong, dominant, and in control -- making it harder for them to reach out for help and open up.

We deny male emotionality, vulnerability, and victimhood. They are socialized to be stoic and strong, not to consider their own feelings or wellbeing, or even self-care. Therefore, men can feel extremely uncomfortable while expressing their problems. 

Previous studies suggest that men who can’t speak openly about their emotions are less able to recognize symptoms of mental health problems, and less likely to reach out for support. Nearly 17% of adults in Bangladesh suffer from mental health problems -- 16.8% are men, and among them 92.3% do not seek medical attention, according to the National Mental Health Survey, Bangladesh 2018-19. 

Our society reinforces the worst kinds of masculinity. It injects some extremely harmful messages into our minds from childhood. For example: “Boys shouldn’t cry,” “They can’t show weakness,” “Men don’t share their problems with anyone.” 

These ideas are part of what is now termed “toxic masculinity,” -- a set of cultural expectations of men’s behaviour and emotions that are damaging to both men and society at large. Men from all walks of life become victims of toxic masculinity, which in turn contributes to the deterioration of their physical and mental health.

Men find it challenging to talk about mental health issues because of the misguided advice they receive in the early years of socialization. It becomes too difficult for them to live up to the common tags like “masculine” or “tough guy.” Men start believing they can deal with mental health problems on their own, as talking about it seems embarrassing, and is seen as a sign of weakness.

Masculinity norms, especially self-reliance, can be incompatible with communicative and interactive health literacy. Men with mental health problems experience considerable shame and stigma, and thus feel like they are not able to openly discuss their problems with health care providers. 

Consequently, many men suffer from a sense of isolation and exclusion, which can have disastrous effects, including suicidal tendencies, which are ranked as a leading cause of death for men. 

According to Bangladesh Society for the Enforcement of Human Rights, male suicide rates have escalated from 126 in 2015 to 194 in 2017, with a total of 696 male suicides between 2014-2017. One of the leading reasons behind these rising numbers is men’s underlying mental health conditions. 

Men are less likely to access treatment than women, less likely to talk about their mental health issues with family or friends, and more likely to use harmful coping methods in response to stress and depression. They usually opt for alternatives like anger, aggression, violence, self-harm, alcohol, tobacco, or drug abuse.

Left untreated, mental illness can be damaging to a man’s personal and professional relationships. It can also be bad for the women and children in their lives.

Men’s mental health should be recognized as a social issue rather than just a health concern. Society needs to be more empathetic towards men and their problems.

Major reforms in our education system, raising awareness at a family level, clearing myths around toxic masculinity, stopping the media from promoting ultra-toxic manhood are all steps that must be taken. If society is to help men and therefore help itself, existing attitudes towards men and masculinity need to be changed. We need to redefine what manhood means.

Boys and men need role models whom they can look up to as paragons of positive masculinity. Every man must be shown that it’s possible to go beyond expectations, share emotions, and be vulnerable. 

Gender-transformative health promotion can come in handy in changing the culture around men’s help-seeking behaviour. Friends and family can play a leading role by providing necessary support and affirmation. It is important for men to realize that there is no shame in accessing professional support to regain their health and live a happier, fuller life.

Raising awareness through involving communities and influential people to motivate men to talk about their problems can be helpful for reducing mental health stigma.

Helen Mashiyat Preoty is a post-graduate student of economics. Tasnim Nowshin Fariha is a student of Women and Gender Studies.

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