Content warning: This article discusses suicide and contains descriptions of rape culture.
With November comes the start of #Movember. You’ve seen the posts talking about men’s physical and mental health, but why are they important right now? Well, the truth is that talking about men’s health has never been more important.
According to CBC, men and boys are populations that are at a higher risk for suicide and that account for 75 per cent of suicides in Canada. Compared to women, men are about three times more likely to die by suicide. This disparity in suicide rates can in part be attributed to a centuries-old issue that has only recently received attention: toxic masculinity.
Toxic masculinity refers to the social construct of masculinity that compels men to display behaviours that are objectively negative. These behaviours include avoiding emotional expression, displaying violence and aggressiveness as a form of power, maintaining dominance over women, and expressing contempt for the LGBTQ+ community.
Essentially, toxic masculinity is the result of teaching boys from a young age that these are the behaviours they must engage in to fit into the social construct of their gender. The idea that socially accepted masculine behaviours represent strength reinforces the stereotype that any other behaviour is feminine and, thus, weak.
As a result, men feel the need to adhere to these standards for fear of not being accepted and becoming a social outcast. Even young boys are conditioned to avoid taking part in activities that are viewed as being inherently feminine, such as playing with dolls or dress up.
At the same time, these behaviours also push expectations on girls and women to act a certain way, and they are often told that they will struggle to be accepted in society if they act in ways that are ‘too masculine.’ The result is that both groups are forced into boxes that they may not necessarily fit into or feel comfortable in, which can be harmful to their mental health.
For instance, the standards of masculinity set by society can cause young men to refrain from being emotionally vulnerable. Not surprisingly, this can cause many men to become susceptible to mental health problems such as depression and anxiety, resulting in the alarming trends in men’s suicide rates we see today.
Furthermore, for youth and young adults of all genders aged 15–34 years old, suicide is the second leading cause of death. Within this age category, university students in particular are susceptible to death by suicide, especially because they are at a time in their lives that is full of confusion and discomfort. Men are an even higher risk group, since statistics show that suicide rates are higher among them.
The effects of toxic masculinity can also have dangerous consequences for women in particular. In postsecondary institutions in Canada, about one in 10 students who identify as women are sexually assaulted. Many have attributed this to the normalization of rape culture — the idea that sexual violence against women is used by men as a demonstration of power. Toxic masculinity, which essentially promotes displays of power, reinforces a society where ideal masculinity is correlated with sexual violence.
As such, the main issue with stereotypical masculinity lies in the way it has been defined by society. Gender should not be defined by how dominant or aggressive a person is, and certainly not by how much they choose to emotionally express themselves. Rather than masculinity and femininity being viewed as polar opposites, they should be considered ways in which people can express themselves, without being limited to only one form. There is no ‘correct’ version of masculinity or femininity, but simply the way an individual chooses to express themselves however they are most comfortable.
In order to create a society in which men can be more emotionally vulnerable, it is necessary to start teaching children how to express themselves from a young age. Rather than saying “boys don’t cry,” all children should be encouraged to seek support when feeling pressured or upset. For the men who are already past this stage, it is important to reach out and let them know that they can find help. Furthermore, toxic behaviours must not be tolerated and must be called out when they are seen. Rather than drawing boundaries that define masculinity, individual expression should be encouraged in whatever form it may take.
While most universities have mental health resources for everyone on campus, some have created support groups specific to men’s mental health and unlearning toxic masculinity. For example, students at Brown University started a program called Masculinity 101, in which students meet weekly to discuss what masculinity means to them and how to disengage from the negative behaviours associated with it to develop healthier relationships.
Initiatives like this give students the space to talk about how they have been affected by certain issues and how they can improve going forward. Similar initiatives can be implemented at U of T by creating resources that are specific to certain groups and their experiences, such as a support group for men who have grown up surrounded by toxic masculinity.
So let’s focus on men’s mental health by working to disassemble the societal structures that have led to the suffering of men and those around them. Society needs to redefine masculinity by erasing its boundaries so that every individual has the capacity to be themself.
Urooba Shaikh is a first-year psychological and health sciences student at UTSC.
If you or someone you know is in distress, you can call:
- Canada Suicide Prevention Service phone available 24/7 at 1-833-456-4566
- Good 2 Talk Student Helpline at 1-866-925-5454
- Connex Ontario Mental Health Helpline at 1-866-531-2600
- Gerstein Centre Crisis Line at 416-929-5200
- U of T Health & Wellness Centre at 416-978-8030
Warning signs of suicide include:
- Talking about wanting to die
- Looking for a way to end one’s life
- Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
- Talking about feeling trapped or being in unbearable pain
- Talking about being a burden to others
- Increasing use of alcohol or drugs
- Acting anxious, agitated, or reckless
- Sleeping too little or too much
- Withdrawing or feeling isolated
- Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
- Displaying extreme mood swings
The more of these signs a person shows, the greater the risk. If you suspect someone you know may be contemplating suicide, you should talk to them, according to the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.