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Man Up for Mental Health: Reducing stigma and making progress for men’s mental health

Anjali Choudhary, December 4 2021—

Every November, millions of people around the world gather to show support and solidarity for men’s health and mental health, whether it be through growing out their facial hair or validating the very real issues men experience. However, the behaviours that continue to persist in the face of these efforts are quite concerning. Despite claims of creating a more inclusive, accommodating and supporting environment for men’s mental health, the overall societal structures continue to encourage harmful masculine behaviour. As cliché as it is, people are still being told to “man up” in the face of emotional vulnerability. This idea, created and reinforced by the patriarchal structure of our society, acts as a clear barrier in the improvement of men’s mental health. 

Although the social conventions of toxic masculinity are deemed by many to be outdated, the internalized view of — and desire for — male strength continues to exist in all ages. This also includes the university student body who otherwise claim to be free of stereotypical assumptions and harmful societal norms. Hence, the intergenerational pushback by men against  other men seeking help, or even admitting that they need help, is the largest obstacle to creating a safe space for all individuals. In order to counter this, active steps need to be taken to deconstruct the foundational views of our society through education, productive conversations and the expansion of resources to create encouragement for all individuals to seek help when they need it. To spark change in our own generation, we must spearhead these crucial conversations amongst our peers. 

ManUp For Mental Health, a University of Calgary club, was created to champion a movement towards positive changes to the status of men’s mental health. In an interview with the Gauntlet, co-presidents Joshua Huang and Sophia Tran expressed the need for everyone to actively end the stigma surrounding men’s mental health. 

“There still exists this sort of hegemonic masculinity within our society. Our club works to address this,” they claim. 

With their mandate of removing gender as a barrier to seeking support, promoting safe drinking and connecting students, Huang claims they are working against a “society which idealizes men that are tough and [don’t] have mental health struggles [because] this is obviously unrealistic.” Ultimately they hope to “redefine what it means to man up.”

The biggest and most impactful changes made to any situation are often the ones made closest to home. This is especially true in a university setting which is characteristically known for its poor mental health. In fact, indicators of poor mental health are most often joked about, if not competitively compared, as tell-tale signs of hard work and comical struggles. 

“Many students enter university and begin to face mental health struggles they’ve never faced [before], because the onset of university [is] super competitive,” said Tran. 

In this formative period, this practice of boasting about one’s negative mental health, in combination with the societal barriers that already exist, is of extreme detriment to men’s mental health. Along with the overall pressures faced by men to not display characteristics that may show weakness, additional pressures accompany men in university. The idea of being in your prime years — to be fun-loving and maintain a nonchalant attitude — adds to the hardships in admitting that mental health struggles occur. Huang tells us that even in his personal life, friends will “rarely confide in [their] feelings, and the discomfort of emotional conversations are drowned out over jokes.” 

Although every person faces some sort of mental health challenge at a point in their academic career, the ideal is upheld for men to neglect these feelings and present themselves as being consistently happy and content despite going through very real emotions. 

“It’s not really as normalized for men to reach out for help,” said Huang. 

The perpetuation of this behaviour at a key developmental stage in life both sets up individuals to continue to struggle in the future, perpetuates toxic masculinity by forcing men to internalize it and further project it on other vulnerable men. This situation is worsened when ever-present issues such as the stigma around seeking help are thought to no longer exist. As a generation specifically, great efforts are being made to address the internalized stereotypes that have existed for a long time in our society. 

However, although we recognize that it is an important task to support men in their mental health journey, we are far from truly achieving that goal. Structural barriers, largely including harmful societal perceptions, take tremendous amounts of time and effort to be broken. Change can be made either slowly over time by working on education for present and future generations, or by taking drastic actions such as widespread changes to social programs. Unfortunately, neither have been utilized thus far and as a result, the stigma surrounding men’s mental health and their inability to access help still persists. 

“The awareness has definitely increased […] I don’t believe the behaviour and social practices of men have changed a whole lot,” Huang said. “Awareness is a great start [but] awareness without altered behaviour is not always productive. Instead the behaviour surrounding this and the outdated model of hegemonic masculinity must be altered.”

While it is important to recognize the efforts that have been made, being complacent with the state of affairs is just as dangerous as taking no action at all. We cannot ignore the obstacles that continue to exist, simply because we have decided for ourselves that action has been taken. Not only does this hinder progress, but it actually invalidates the experiences of men in their mental health struggles. Those who experience hindrances know all too well that they exist, but if the general population claims to have created an equitable system, those experiences are then discredited. 

Until long-lasting societal change occurs, there are tools, tactics and resources individuals can use in their daily lives to help themselves or others. 

“The biggest step is first reaching out to someone,” said Huang. “It shows you have acknowledged that you are struggling. This can be professionals such as counsellors, social workers and psychologists, or it can be resources on campus.” Calgary offers many resources for free or affordable counselling services through Woods Homes, Alberta Health Services and Wellness Together

“Assessing how you’re using coping strategies — whether harmful or helpful — is one of the biggest takeaways I’ve learned. Identify whether you’re trying to problem-solve the situation or whether you’re trying to react,” said Tran. 

Although these strategies cannot undo the structural barriers that exist, they can definitely aid in personal growth and challenges. It is crucial to remember that seeking help is never a sign of weakness. Society’s skewed ideal for men who do not face mental health challenges is unrealistic, harmful and unrepresentative. An individual’s low points do not in any way define them, but certainly make them stronger.

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