It’s Time to Rethink Masculinity

The long-held ideals aren't working — for anyone. Here, a mental health expert considers why.

man running on beach

The headline in the New York Post hit me like a body blow: “Men less likely to wear face masks because they’re ‘not cool’ and a ‘sign of weakness.’” 

This was mid-May. New York City was at the height of lockdown with cases of COVID-19 exploding all around us, and we were hearing the disease was disproportionately killing men. Yet, according to the study cited in the article, many men were ignoring the urgent advice to wear face masks to protect both themselves and others from this deadly disease for fear of looking “weak.”

My shock at this headline, alongside the interest I already have in what it means to be a man, made me want to take a deeper dive into what being a man means in America today.

There is something about the way we are bringing up boys that's creating men who struggle to thrive in today’s world. You need to look no further than the statistics. In 2018, men died by suicide nearly four times more often than women. Male suicide has been on the increase since the early 2000s. Plus, research shows men are far less likely to seek professional help for physical or mental illness than women. 

The biggest mental health issues facing men today are depression, anxiety, bi-polar disease, psychosis and schizophrenia — just to name a few. And the current pandemic-related economic turmoil is fueling many of these problems like gas on a fire (and not just for guys, I know).

There's an urgency to rethinking how we raise boys and how to support them when they grow up. Men need to become skilled in talking about their feelingsthey need to be educated in good mental health and, crucially, they need to know how to ask for help.

The starting point is overhauling our definition of masculinity, because the existing ideals are letting everyone down. 

Today’s world is rightly asking for a different kind of man.

According to the American Psychological Association, "American society socializes boys and men to conform to a definition of masculinity that emphasizes toughness, stoicism, acquisitiveness and self-reliance." These attributes might have made sense when the country was still forming, when stoicism and toughness would have been as essential as timber and railways lines. But in the modern world, with COVID-19, economic uncertainty, #metoo, emotional literacy expectations and more these masculine traits are no more fit for purpose than socks made from bread dough. 

For starters, need to not tell boys to pull themselves together or, worse, to "man up" when display sadness or fear. We should let them know that all their feelings matter. And of course helping men to loosen the strict expectations of masculinity means we also have to challenge our own stereotypes too. 

In the many years I’ve worked as a therapist and coach, I’ve been struck by how willing many men are, when given the safe, healing environment of the therapy room, to share their vulnerabilities, to tell their stories of struggle and uncertainty and their dreams. This is what gives me hope. We can begin new conversations about what it means to be a man — in a new world where showing fear, uncertainty or sadness aren’t hidden behind anger, shame or denial. 

Today’s world is rightly asking for a different kind of man. As parents, educators, friends, lovers, spouses and significant others, we can all support men in discovering the emotional tools they need in order to become this new, healthier, more self-aware version of themselves.

David Waters is an executive coach and UK-trained psychotherapist based in New York City.

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