Down With Man Up

In late November of 2018 I was asked to speak at the event Down With Man Up, hosted by Cornerstone Counselling Centre. Down With Man Up is a multi-media challenge that asks for artistic submissions on the topic of men’s mental health. My speech talks about the impact of masculine stereotypes on men’s mental health, addiction and suicide.  Here it is:

“Thank you, it’s a privilege to be asked to speak here about men’s mental health.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but men are dying of dated concepts of masculinity. Sadly, our culture continues to perpetuate a form of masculinity that denies men their full humanity.

Boys still learn that real men don’t cry; that real men soldier on; that real men are winners — leaders, not followers — who outlast and outperform the competition, be it in rec hockey, the boardroom or the bedroom.

You’ve watched blockbuster Hollywood movies. You know the archetype of manhood our culture celebrates. Our hero saves the day with fists of fury or handguns a-plenty, with a wink or comic quip to remind us he’s a good guy.

I suck at being a man. I’m kind of wimpy. Not handy with tools. I like shoes and ride a Vespa scooter.

More to the point, I grew up with an anxiety disorder that blossomed into a deep, dark depression. I got help. I got better. But along the way I experienced the stigma of not just having a mental illness but being a man with a mental illness.

As a journalist I turned my challenges into a unique news beat at The Edmonton Journal. I focused on psychology, personal growth and other issues related to mental health. But I also wrote a number of pieces on gender, particularly masculinity.

One of my articles was prompted by the annual flu shot at work and a female nurse rolling her eyes at my cringing reaction to needles. She then joked … sort of … about the dreaded MAN COLD.

So I researched and wrote a piece about gender experiences of pain. The research turned up something interesting. It might surprise you.

But before I finish that story, I want to talk about patriarchy, a term I’ve struggled with forever. I refuse to believe men are genetically predisposed to creating the myriad problems blamed on their gender.

But I’ve come to accept that socialization and social structures set men up to behave in ways that are too often destructive to society and self.

The impacts of patriarchy, often referred to nowadays as toxic masculinity, led to the feminist movement that has made huge strides in 50 years.

Women are still victimized by dated social structures. I consider myself a humble ally and proudly serve on council’s gender-based violence initiative.

But I’ve long wondered how we could look at the ills of these social structures without considering the impacts on men. What impact? Well, we know that:

  • Children develop gender identity by the age of three because of socialization, role modelling and, often, a detached relationship with their previously socialized dad.
  • Young men drop out of high school more than young women. They’re less likely to pursue post-secondary education.
  • Men drink and use drugs more. They are more likely to be the perpetrators or victims of violence.
  • Men are more likely to take their own lives.
  • In the United Kingdom, studies of depression show a major shift in the traditional gender imbalance, with depression rising among men and decreasing among women.
  • And so, suffering in silence and isolation, men act out on their mental disorders in destructive ways, to themselves and … too often … others.

Men are NOT genetically or hormonally predestined to domestic violence,  substance abuse, suicide, homicide or numerous other ills that are attributed to men.

The root problem is that our concepts of masculinity demand the shutting down of vulnerable emotions. THAT is how men are robbed of their humanity — robbed of their capacity to bond intimately and emotionally with male friends, with their spouses and with their children. And those men pass those same traits on to their offspring.

I started a story earlier about my research into gender experiences of pain, after a young nurse teased me about my aversion to needles. She then went on to complain about men and their MAN COLDS.

My research for the story turned up one reason why men might experience pain differently. Remember the childhood experience of lining up at school to get the dread needle? Do they still do that?

It is likely that boys experience needles as more painful. Why? Because of their socialized stoicism. Girls are more likely to talk out their fears, while boys act tough.

But burying fear creates anxiety and anxiety, as we know, heightens our experience of pain. Which might encapsulate the entire problem of toxic masculinity. Burying our vulnerable emotions comes back to bite us, one way or another.

One of the people I interviewed for the man-cold article, a PhD in nursing, pointed out something really interesting. Men, she said, are expected to face physical and mental pain without batting an eye.

That’s the cultural expectation, thanks to patriarchy, or dated masculinity or toxic masculinity — whatever you want to call it. But when they get a cold, they take it as a respite from that expectation.

They let down their guard and get all vulnerable and whiney and hope that someone might look after them. Instead, they get teased for being wimps.

We have choices to make about how we define and critique masculinity. We can blame men for all of society’s ills. Or we can join together as allies, as moms and dads and wives and friends … and change these stupid archetypes. And if some man you know has a cold, give him a hug. He will be delighted.”

I am sharing this while the new Gillette ad catches waves. I am both appalled and encouraged that conversations around toxic masculinity and men’s health are becoming more common. They are difficult conversations to have. It’s hard to look within and challenge traditional behaviours and thought-patterns. It’s even harder to see how we intentionally or unintentionally contribute to the socialization of children. But it is important work. Work we must do for the sake of boys — for the sake of everyone.

By Scott McKeen, City Councillor Ward 6