Updated June 12, 2023
What makes some countries more likely to approach mental health issues head-on than others? Why do some cultures, even in the same country, have drastically different views on masculinity, weakness and asking for help? Understanding the cultural and geographical differences in attitudes regarding mental health and expressions of manliness can go a long way toward reversing potentially harmful trends and making treatment for men’s mental illness more accepted.
In this piece, we’ll explore attitudes about mental health in different cultures as a way of analyzing why some ethnic groups are accepting of men who ask for help.
Exploring the Concept of Toxic Masculinity
Toxic masculinity has become a popular concept in modern society, describing the ingrained cultural attitudes that make it difficult for women to escape misogyny and for men to show any kind of weakness. JJ Bola, an African-born writer and poet, is one of a growing number of people trying to figure out how to break through the barrier of toxic masculinity, as he says, “before it’s too late.”
He wrote his latest book, “Mask Off: Masculinity Redefined,” to shine a light on a old problem that is still prevalent in countries across the globe. In a recent article in The Guardian, Bola describes how toxic masculinity makes the world a dangerous place for women and keeps men from getting access to help with their mental health that they need.
Here are some key ethnic, social and legal norms that promote an outdated concept of masculinity and preserve barriers to men’s mental health.
The Warrior Ethos
In some of the most industrialized, technologically advanced countries, there still exist norms that proliferate the belief that men act as protectors of women and children. Men forcing displays of masculinity on those around them can be a product of these attitudes, a means to show that they’re tough, unflinching and unwilling to back down.
Some of the cultures that prominently display these attitudes are the more heavily militarized — Russian and American cultures, for example — or those where the worship of warriors and those who conquer on the battlefield have been ingrained in tradition, such as China and Japan.
In the US, this mindset is evident in military and veteran communities. Even when mental health impacts a soldier’s ability to serve in their role, many are afraid to speak up out of fear of being judged or thought of as weaker than their peers.
One of the consequences of toxic masculinity has been discriminatory views towards the LGBT community in communities across the globe. Negative opinions on weakness and homosexuality exist due to the misguided belief that gay men aren’t real men because they’re sometimes less conventionally masculine than their heterosexual counterparts.
In many cultures, an alternative lifestyle is frowned upon; in others, it’s illegal. This is the case in Nigeria and other African countries, as well as Middle Eastern countries and cultures. But it would be a mistake to say that anti-gay sentiments cause insecurity only in places where gay rights don’t exist. Despite laws that allow homosexual couples to marry in the United States, there is still a stigma about homosexuality in certain pockets of American culture that stifles men’s ability to get help when they need it.
For example, homophobia is more common in African American and other minority cultures, and the result is that fewer people in these communities get the help they need. One study found that Black men used a lower percentage of mental health services than the leading group, white women, by a margin of nearly 15%.
Religious conservatism is generally a predictor for cultural conditions that discourage men to ask for help, and it usually centers around religious conceptions of the patriarchal family — i.e., a family structure in which the men work and provide for their family while women run the homes. These ideas are prevalent in cultures where strict religious ideologies are held. Cultural norms of the American South and the Middle East are two that stand out, but these attitudes exist in every corner of the world.
Keeping in mind that familial traditions and cultural backgrounds can differ from family to family, as well as between cultures, this doesn’t mean an ingrained sense of patriarchy isn’t damaging to all parties who live under it.
While there are few places in the world where men are broadly encouraged to speak out about their mental health, there are some general trends. Cultures that are viewed as more socially progressive (Canadian, Scandinavian and many Western European cultures) are more accepting of men’s mental health needs than cultures that are seen as more conservative (The Middle East, Asia and Eastern Europe).
Why Are Discussions About Men’s Mental Health Important?
When public figures, celebrities and athletes open up about their own struggles with mental health, it makes it seem like an option for the people that idolize them. When Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson talks frankly about the damage that traditional conceptions of masculinity have on men who need help, people listen.
Toxic masculinity becomes a focal part of a cautionary tale for many men who try their whole lives to uphold an impossible standard of manliness and end up realizing they would’ve lived happier lives if they had been true to who they were the whole time. That’s the kind of thing public discussions about men’s mental health have the potential to change.
Substance Use and Poor Self-Care
In cultures in which substance use is normalized for males, men may be more likely to mask symptoms of mental illness with alcohol or drug use. According to one study that observed the drinking and self-care habits of men in the Russian Federation, men were considerably more likely to self-medicate with alcohol than to seek professional help.
The study attributed several factors to this trend, including a comparatively small middle class (those in the middle class tend to have healthier lifestyles than their economically disadvantaged counterparts) and a society’s lack of emphasis on the individual’s healthy lifestyle practices. In many cultures with rigid ideas surrounding masculinity, substance use may be seen as more socially acceptable than seeking professional help for a mental illness.
Substance use may also be more prevalent among men in marginalized communities. Men who are gay, bisexual or transgender; those living in rural communities; those who are unhoused and those who are members of ethnic minority groups may be likely to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol as an alternative to seeking mental health treatment.
Unfortunately, because substance use is comparatively common in these groups, even some mental health care professionals may not recognize the need for mental health treatment. The substance use, rather than the underlying mental health condition, is seen as the root problem. To make matters more complicated, men in marginalized communities may have difficulty accessing informed mental health services. Even those who are open to treatment may have a hard time finding a therapist who understands where they’re coming from.
Working in Male-Dominated Fields
Studies suggest that men may be particularly concerned by how their male peers will react if they suggest that they’re experiencing disruptive mental or emotional distress. In all-male groups, whether it’s a work or social setting, there tends to be a stigma that prevents men from talking about symptoms of conditions such as depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder. Whether this stigma is real or simply perceived, it can make men reluctant to seek social support for mental distress.
Even if society’s views are evolving to recognize the importance of mental health for all individuals, change may come more slowly to certain male-dominated environments. In certain industries such as construction, men’s sports, law enforcement, and agriculture, workers may be more likely to encounter traditional masculine norms that discourage emotional disclosure or showing vulnerability. Along with this, there may be an expectation to put work responsibilities ahead of personal or family needs. Preserving social status, effectiveness on the job or the perception of toughness may be at the expense of mental health.
What Does Change Look Like?
The change will come as social stigmas surrounding mental health lower barriers for men to address their own struggles. There are already more and more options for men in the mental health space, but to continue to broaden, this change has to happen on a larger scale. Mental health awareness needs to be taught better and earlier in school curricula across the globe, and importantly, the discussion about mental health needs to continue to gather momentum.
Some of the efforts so far are promising, and as a society, we’re certainly better at creating a welcoming environment for men than we were 50 years ago, but we need to continue to fight back against toxic masculinity using awareness and frank conversations about the issues at hand.
Men’s mental health isn’t an issue that’s going away any time soon, and at FHE Health, we pride ourselves in being able to provide a safe, judgment-free space to get help. If you or a loved one is suffering, contact us today and learn about your options for treatment.