Gillette, a partner of the P&G family, has pioneered the tagline “The Best A Man Can Get”, which has positioned them as a frontrunner in reflecting societal standards that many men strive to achieve. Over the past 30 years, Gillette has reflected many ideals of the best man. This man has unwavering internal and external strength, usually participates in grueling athletics, has a cut-throat career and is irresistible to beautiful women. This man is the embodiment of hegemonic masculinity. Traditional or hegemonic masculinity is the culturally dominant, ideal masculine type characterized by dominance, invulnerability, physical strength, and emotional preservation. However, very recently Gillette challenged this archetype. They recognized that brands, such as theirs, play a role in influencing culture and that they have a responsibility to make sure they are promoting positive, attainable, inclusive and healthy ideas of what it means to be a man. This same conversation can be had about how this detrimental idea of hegemonic masculinity, if left unquestioned, can negatively contribute to men’s mental health.
Startling statistics show that men are three times more likely to die by suicide compared to women but are far less likely to seek both informal and formal help for mental health problems. The pressure to fit in among other males as “one of the boys” was detailed as a primary source of male mental illness. The anxiety of trying to conform to a homogenous and often ill-fitting construction of masculinity created a feeling of inauthenticity, resulting in varying degrees of psychological distress in males. Most males found themselves in a balancing act between having enough masculinity where they could fit in among their male peers, and having too much masculinity where they could no longer express their feelings and seek help.
Traditional masculinity may instigate as well as perpetuate mental illness. The desire to display inner strength and self-reliance results in men disguising their feelings and denying their mental health concerns. Data shows that men disconnect from health care services in adolescence, the peak of mental health disorders, enduring their mental health struggles into middle and later adulthood. Male socialization has left men to take more risks with their health, be less aware of disease symptoms and unsure of when to classify a mental health issue as a problem in need of addressing. Research has found that men preferred to manage problems themselves as a way to maintain control and strength in the face of adversity. This self-reliance created a lack of connection with others, feelings of being out of control, as well as self-blame for not being able to manage their condition without assistance.
Taking from the progressive example of Gillette, it is imperative we begin to reframe traditional masculinity in a positive way. Hegemonic masculinity can be an adaptive outlet to recover from mental illness and form a healthy mental concept. Positive hegemonic masculine ideologies such as fatherhood, partnership and being a family man were shown to prevent males from dying by suicide. In addition, ways of thinking and acting that are traditionally masculine, such as chopping wood, playing sports, being in a band and motor biking did serve as a resource to cope with mental distress. Moreover, positive masculine traits such as being heroic, selfless, a leader and an achiever could be used to re-interpret feminizing experiences as masculine. For example, males reconstructed overcoming depression as a heroic and strength-based feat as opposed to one of vulnerability and powerlessness.
When males did seek formal help, obstacles within medical consultations often acted as hindrances to effective treatment. Males often present with nontraditional disease symptoms. For example, they may express mental illnesses with alienation, concealment, isolation, physical complaints and anger which leave men out of the majority of traditional diagnostic criteria for depression and anxiety. Consequently, numerous men go wrongfully undiagnosed. It is crucial we start providing accessible training to health care providers on male-specific diagnostic strategies. It is recommended that health care providers, specifically primary care providers, ask explicit questions regarding mood and functioning and carefully assess alternative presentations of depression. It is important these providers take note of life events such as job loss or divorce that may threaten a patient’s traditional masculine concept and trigger a mental health concern. By building patient rapport, health care providers may be able to ease the anxiety of a diagnosis and educate male patients on mental health.
Once a healthy patient-doctor relationship is established, it is important to consider what kinds of patient-specific treatment doctors should prioritize. An academic review points to how a lifetime of denying and suppressing emotions to conform to hegemonic masculinity can lead numerous men to suffer from alexithymia, characterized by the inability to identify and describe emotions in the self. Talk therapy, a traditional method of mental health treatment, was difficult for men who struggled with expressing emotions, had anxiety over doing so, or were uncomfortable or embarrassed. Traditional masculine socialization left many men more open to action-oriented approaches. This type of treatment is future-focused and progress-driven and takes a “getting hard work done” approach shown to be beneficial for males who struggle with hegemonic masculine ideals. Action-oriented approaches allow men to set goals and develop the skills to accomplish them, making them feel in control of overcoming their illness.
Overall, the more flexibility there is for different ways of being a man, the better it will be for all men and those that care about them. For more information on the Movember campaign and to take part, visit their website.
If you want to find out more about how Gillette is creating positive experiences for young men at the Boys’ & Girls’ Clubs click here
MENTAL HEALTH RESOURCES:
If life is in danger, call 911 or go directly to emergency services.
Call your local crisis support line: 1-888-456-4566 (Available 365 days/year, 7 days/week, 24 hours/day)
Nunavut Kamatsiaqtut Helpline (Inuit led suicide prevention program with 24 hour help): 1-867-979-3333 (local Nunavut phone number) 1-800-265-333 (Toll free outside of Iqaluit and residents of Nunavumiut)
HeadsUpGuys: Online resources to assist men in the prevention and management of depression.
Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868 (Confidential 24 hour support for young people ages 5-20)
Shannon Loveless was a practicum student and Research Analyst in the Ivey International Centre for Health Innovation for 2018/2019 academic year. She completed her Honours Specialization in Health Sciences at Western University.