Why should we need to make gender explicit when talking about men’s mental health?

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With the emergence of Covid-19, mental health as a topic of discussion has found itself within mainstream media in recent months. While this demonstrates that there is currently a heightened presence of mental health discourse, it also highlights some aspects of that discourse that continue to be overlooked. One aspect in particular that I will discuss here is gender and more specifically, men.

While efforts have been made to bring men’s mental health to the forefront of public discourse, such as what Prince William is aiming to do with his charity Heads Together, suicide continues to be one of the highest causes of death in young men (CALM, n.d.). This is despite statistics related to rates of anxiety and depression stating that men do not suffer as much as women (Men’s Health Forum, n.d.), bringing about a discrepancy between what is being said versus what is really happening in relation to men’s mental health. This also calls into question why such a discrepancy exists, arguing for a need to address it through public discourse. One way we can do that is by exploring gender.

But what exactly is gender and why is it important to consider in the context of mental health? Risman (2004) considers gender as a part of social practice that is ‘embedded in all the social processes of everyday life’ (p.430) and that it can allow us to examine how society members are expected to conform based on their gender. It is this idea of conformity wherein lies a potential issue for men’s mental health where gender as a concept continues to be binary where society members are expected to conform to either male or female expectations (Holmes, 2006; Risman, 2004). 

While a binary approach to gender can allow for more understanding of one’s expectation in society, the issue for men’s mental health comes about when we consider what these expectations mean. For example, Holmes (2006) considers the workplace as a context for gendered social practice and states that masculine workplaces are ‘powerful’ (p.7) whereas feminine workplaces are more emotional. This suggests emotions are inherently female expectations and that for a man to be emotional (or admit to feeling as such) would be to signal being feminine and powerless. A consequence of this is the exclusion of men with mental health issues from being given opportunities to discuss their experiences due to a fear of being signalled as different to their expected gendered behaviour.

This exclusion goes so far as being evident in mental health research, where participants are either signalled as female or as part of a general population (e.g. Mancini & Rogers, 2007), further adding to the idea that men do not suffer from mental illness in the same way as women do. However, is this exclusion in reality because statistics do reflect that men do not suffer mental illness to the same extent or is it because they do not see themselves being represented and therefore do not consider themselves as suffering? 

One way of increasing public understanding of mental illness is proposed by Mendenhall & Frauenholtz (2013) who advocate for the development of public mental health literacy, which would increase social representations of what mental illness looks like. By making gender explicit through these social representations in mental health discourse would demonstrate a discursive precedent for men who suffer from mental illness, allowing them the space to openly discuss their experiences.

References:

CALM. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.thecalmzone.net/

Holmes, J. (2006). Gendered talk at work: Constructing gender identity through workplace discourse. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 

Mancini, M. A., & Rogers, R. (2007). Narratives of recovery from serious psychiatric disabilities: A critical discourse analysis. Critical Approaches to Discourse Analysis across Disciplines, 1(2), 35-50. Retrieved from https://www.lancaster.ac.uk/fass/journals/cadaad/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Volume-1_Mancini-Rogers.pdf

Men’s Health Forum. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.menshealthforum.org.uk/key-data-mental-health

Mendenhall, A.N., & Frauenholtz, S. (2013). Mental health literacy: Social work’s role in improving public mental health. Social work, 58(4), 365-368. DOI: 10.1093/sw/swt038 

Risman, B.J. (2004). Gender as a social structure: Theory wrestling with activism. Gender and Society, 18(4), 429-450. DOI: 10.1177/0891243204265349

About:

Ffion Brown, a second-year PhD student in the department of Languages, Linguistics and TESOL. Researching how public perceptions of gender and mental health influence the way men linguistically construct their experiences with mental illness.

Twitter: @Ffion_A_Brown

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