Overview:

When we let our culture gamify the very serious and entangled issue of men's mental health and toxic cultural signaling, everyone suffers. Men deserve a culture that doesn't treat them as disposable. We all do.

Reading Time: 8 minutes

When I was a kid, comedians and pundits still felt comfortable joking about how terrible women would be in political office because they menstruate. Hormones, get it? As if only half the population has them, and testosterone has no complex interactions for human bodies.

As a child, I absorbed all kinds of reductive claims about women, including the idea (now in question) that women are inherently worse at spatial reasoning. But when I was old enough to look up the research on that truism myself, I noticed an odd secondary note: male children apparently perform worse on reading comprehension, and with a wider performance gap than the one ascribed to women for spatial reasoning. So why didn’t this get talked about more? Why wasn’t lower male reading comprehension a bigger deal?

It would take a lot of exposure to trauma research and society writ large to piece together the complex factors underpinning the obvious fact that men have struggles all their own, and yet, our cultures have done a terrible job addressing them, even though men still dominate so many power structures. Why women’s self-help sections runneth over, and men’s tend to involve spiritual or financial remedies, at best. Why some men would rather die than admit to having a problem, and do, or feel they have no one they can turn to for help. Why, despite so much state representation, middle-aged white men have the highest rate of suicide in the US, and 3.88 times as many men in 2020 died by suicide than women.


RELATED: How to talk suicide prevention with the mentally ill person in your life


And most importantly, why talking about any of this is a minefield⁠—because it is. Because men’s mental health has been so thoroughly weaponized for political theater, especially around horrific tragedies like mass shootings and more quotidian cruelties like domestic violence, that its mere utterance often reads as an apologia for all the world’s many devastating wrongs. Or, if not that, there are plenty of online movements that seem to think the problem is simply “women”, as if men never had mental health struggles until twentieth-century feminism made certain legal gains.

Therein, though, lies the problem. For a variety of reasons⁠—among men, sometimes to save face and preserve authority; among women, sometimes to keep the focus on transgressions, and their redress⁠—we have built a society that will do anything to avoid acknowledging that many men, even if they’ve found workarounds that allow them significant success and power over others, are still living with serious health concerns.

We need a reframe.

We need to imagine a world where, every step of the way, we take men’s mental health and developmental issues far more seriously than we do.

For everyone’s sake. And for men’s sake on its own, too.

Analogy by The Northman

When dealing with heavily politicized real-world issues, fictional asides can offer a safer playing field for discourse, so apologies if you haven’t seen The Northman yet. It’s excellent, and I’ll try to keep this spoiler-free.

The Northman begins with a small boy radiant with joy because his father, long at war, has come home. There is nothing but affection in this gentle human. His father can do no wrong in his eyes. But his father quickly informs his mother that it’s time the boy be toughened up, and made ready for the world.

The two embark on a spiritual rite of passage where the boy is told that he’s a dog until he can prove he is a man. His father and another authority, the shaman, make him swear to avenge his father’s impending murder. Alas, that death comes soon after, so the little boy flees for his life, imprinting himself as he rows to safety with this vow of vengeance.

Years later, we see how he’s survived: by becoming a useful member of a warring faction that embraces its animal nature as it pillages and plunders, slaughtering the unusable and selling everyone else into slavery. The boy has grown into a strong man. When he hears tell of where to find the man who killed his father, his destiny is clear, and he is ready to meet it.

All throughout the film, our protagonist has visions that affirm the importance of cleaving to his destiny. Even when one character points out that this supposed destiny is a choice, that things aren’t as inevitable as they seem, the imprinting runs deep. In that early ritual with his father, he was told never to seek out women’s knowledge, because that’s what got Odin’s eye plucked out. The proscription against continuing to learn, to explore, to expand one’s possibilities, and to imagine other ways of living runs far too deep.

The real-world connection

Although the context of Robert Eggers’ Viking drama differs from our world today, the same pitfalls linger. The idea that a male child might need to “toughen up” and “prove” himself to become a real man. The idea that a male child should prioritize what they learn from men over women. And the idea that, if a child goes through trauma but comes out stronger for it, it’s fine. If he’s successful, then the trauma’s been dealt with well enough.

In real life, these lessons aren’t always given anywhere near as explicitly. Children unfortunately learn social roles early on, for instance, and a significant reason that male children lag in reading and languages is that these fields quickly gain a feminine air. (If one wants their male child to be a reader, and there’s a male parent in the house, the male parent should absolutely be involved in reading activities to counteract this bias.)

Nevertheless, explicit or implicit, these lessons have a lasting negative impact with respect to allowing oneself to be wrong, experience setbacks, fail, or show weakness. And what an exhausting state of mind that becomes, even if this same can’t-fail mentality is what allows the male person to acquire material forms of wealth and success. Worse still, what if they absorb this mentality without gaining the promised entitlements? If they cleave to the principles they’ve been told are key to being a man, and those principles aren’t panning out?

Well then, woe betide that person and everyone in the communities around him.

Anger and mental disruption

There’s a reason we have difficulty differentiating anger from formal mental health issues.

A person who rages because they feel they have not received their due is disordered. Absolutely. And there are many reasons for that disorder. Sometimes institutions have done them wrong. Sometimes loved ones won’t let them grieve, hurt, or be otherwise vulnerable. And yes, this includes women. Even though many would love nothing more than for men to go to therapy, many others do pathologize male vulnerability: requiring men to “suck it up” until they explode, and actively policing what ideal masculinity “should” look like.

For other men, though, they’re simply steeped in an acculturated notion of what a man deserves, and when they can’t seem to manifest that material ideal in their own lives, they blame those around them, and often in a way that objectifies women as lifestyle commodities, and outsiders as thieves of their due. We call that toxic masculinity. We call it misogyny. But at its heart, it’s disordered thinking. It’s a person horrifically imprinted with ideas, behaviors, and routines incompatible with personal wellness and community thriving.

And our societies create tons of people like this. It’s an epidemic.

But also, luckily, that means it has an epidemiological cure.

Precarity trauma and the need for stable societies

In the famous Great Smoky Mountains study, which followed children’s developmental outcomes with an eye on social precarity, researchers accidentally discovered that a really good cure for childhood wellness issues, especially among the behaviorally hard-hit male children, was household financial stability. (Accidentally, because one part of the lower-class demographic was part of a Native community, and received a household windfall from casino profits during the study that drastically increased domestic stability.)

The less stress any household was under, the better the behavioral outcomes of male children. Conversely? The more familial stressors, the more prone to extreme mental health conditions the male children were, at a significantly higher level over the girls.

What this suggests is that masculinized bodies (hormonally, culturally) are incredibly sensitive to the overall stability of their surrounding communities. It’s not that feminized people have no reaction to unstable environments (depression and anxiety rates were certainly high in that same study), but their outcomes fluctuated to lesser extremes.

This notion of male volatility in social outcome, though, is nothing new. It’s built right into the founding myths of our culture. Yes, yes, some men will be at the low end of all sorts of aptitude and achievement tests, and so some men will struggle mightily through life⁠—but why does that have to be you? Aren’t you better than that? Aren’t you exceptional? And isn’t it more important to build a society where those exceptional people (including you, obviously!) get to thrive unhindered at the highest echelons?

We see this aspirational standard in young men’s pre-massacre manifestos. Elliot Rodger, for instance, talked about playing the Powerball lottery after reading Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret (which promises that you’ll get what you want if you manifest your intentions in the universe) as a last-ditch effort to get what he felt was his due, before killing six, wounding fourteen, and then turning his gun on himself.

Rodger committed these egregious crimes at an age when our neurobiology is not fully set but testosterone in all likelihood remains a complicating factor, and he was practically bathing in the broader culture’s get-rich-quick and success-is-being-taken-from-you rhetoric. Together, that can very quickly play a horrific number on a person’s sense of self in relation to the world. Suddenly it’s okay for other men to struggle, because they’re just losers. If they weren’t, they’d also be performing the traits of a successful person, and doing whatever it took to gain the authority and achievement that was their due.

Now, not every toxic stew ends in atrocity. Plenty of teens and young adults phase out of this impressionable and volatile stage without doing quite as much harm to themselves and others. Still, even if it just leads to living life with unaddressed psychological wounds, this is the dominant roadmap given to men by media and our broader culture. You belong in that upper echelon. Unless, that is… you let anything⁠—even your own trauma⁠—get in the way? Then you deserve to be miserable, because you’ve chosen to be a failure instead.

And if a person doesn’t want to play that game? If a man wishes to live his life with the courage of vulnerability and compassion? Sharing the platform? Growing and healing with a community? Then he still has to move through a world where he might be considered lesser for it. Effeminate. A cuck. Why? Because it drives many to added fury not to be able to place you, and the happiness you’ve found in healthier structures, within their toxic worldview.

You might still, in other words, be at the mercy of other people’s wounds.

We need to imagine a world where, at every step of the way, we take men’s mental health and developmental issues far more seriously than we do. For everyone’s sake. And for men’s sake on their own, too.

How we stop weaponizing men’s mental health

We usually focus as a culture on the negative consequences of male volatility⁠—in domestic abuse, and in sex and other violent crimes, including murder⁠—without exploring root causes. To do so is sometimes verboten, because of how difficult it is for female victims to gain any measure of accountability for the harm some men have done. Too many victims have also been pressured into forgiving their perpetrators—in church settings, within families, at work—which is absolutely the wrong way to go about building restorative justice.

But if we really want to imagine a world with less violence all around? One with a stark reduction in rape and harassment, domestic assault and murder-suicides? We have to recognize that the overall instability and toxicity of a society acts in a very particular way on many male children, adolescents, and young adults: imprinting our fellow human beings with completely distorted notions of success and failure, and otherwise estranging them from pathways to belonging and healing that can better the world for all.

Moreover, we have to recognize that the messaging of disposable men is everywhere, and propagated relentlessly by men and women alike. Men sent to war to die. Men sent into arduous jobs (indentured or otherwise) to break their health before they die. Men sent to prison to die, refused any real chance at rehabilitation and reintegration. Male victims of assault, sexual and otherwise, treated as a joke.

Political tribalism wants us to spin this issue as a stark war between “the sexes”, but it’s really a struggle between humanists at any point on the gender/sex spectrum and a whole host of traditionalists who think there’s something better to be gained by building society around the idea that some men deserve to be on top, and that everyone else is not a man at all (be they female or just a “loser” who doesn’t know how to take what’s his).

We don’t have to play this death-cult game.

We can choose to advocate for workers’ rights in a way that honors the value of men’s health and well-being just as much as women’s, reducing “dirty jobs” and upping access to healthcare across the board. We can fight harder for co-parenting cultures that don’t exoticize or pathologize men’s nurturing love for their families. We can target childhood precarity with express messaging about the vital importance of improving mental health resilience in male children. And we can rally for carceral justice reforms and the reduction of the hyper-militarized state as the most pressing men’s rights issues of them all.

Because when society is sick, we’re all sick.

So this Men’s Health Month, let’s remember that it doesn’t really matter if men are leading successful or struggling lives. Not if the society that underpins both outcomes doesn’t give a shit about healing the hurt within them all along the way.

GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.