In most societies across the globe, gender norms around masculinity put power and status on men and boys. Masculinity norms pressure young men to show themselves as strong, competitive, and in control.
But these norms, while giving young men certain privileges, also carry risks for their mental health. Pressures to appear stoic and hide vulnerabilities can stop young men from sharing their emotions or reaching out for support. Sadly, this can have serious and sometimes devastating consequences, with the rates of suicide two to four times higher in men than women globally.
This blog explores how gender norms affect young men’s mental health and what we can do to protect the well-being of teenagers and adolescents. It also offers some information on how treatment for mental health disorders can help young men reclaim their futures.
What Are Gender Norms?
Gender norms are a society’s ideas and expectations about how people of different genders should act and relate to each other. In most communities, gender norms help to maintain a system of hierarchy where what is seen as male and masculine is given power and privilege while females and other gender identities are marginalised. Gender norms work to sustain a system of inequality that takes away opportunities from those who are not cis-male and prevents them from living as their authentic selves.
What Are Gender Norms Around Masculinity?
Traditional gender norms expect people assigned to be male at birth to be masculine. They’re pressured to show characteristics like strength, competitiveness, and power and to be the ‘breadwinner’ of a family, with a secure job and good wage. They’re also expected to be self-reliant, stoic, and control or hide their emotions.
How Do Gender Norms Develop?
Gender norms begin to affect young people from early childhood. They begin in the family, where young children may be treated differently according to their assigned sex and observe the gender relations between others in their home. As they grow older, gender norms are reinforced or challenged by teachers, peers, other community leaders, and exposure to media.
Research shows that by early adolescence, young people are already deeply affected by gender norms. A study among 10 to 14-year-olds in 15 countries found that:
- Boys are encouraged to be independent and strong while girls are perceived as vulnerable
- As they enter puberty, boys are expected to show sexual skills while girls are held responsible for attracting male attention
- Boys who do not conform to masculine norms are bullied or teased
- Boys are pressured to never show traits of femininity
Throughout adolescence and into adulthood, gender norms continue to be reinforced. Alongside family and community, institutions, structures, and policies also play a role in sustaining (and in some cases challenging) our ideas about gender and how people should behave. Through these mechanisms, powers are created, instilled, and enforced.
Gender Norms and Intersectionality
It’s important to remember that gender norms are not the only social forces that can confer status or power. Other axes of power, like race, class, or sexuality also change an individual’s privileges. This means some privileged women or other gender identities may have more power or status than marginalised men.
How Do Masculine Gender Norms Affect Mental Health?
While gender norms may offer young men status and power, they can also cause them harm. Masculine gender norms can make it more likely for young men to struggle with their mental health, leading to substance misuse, risky behaviours, violence, aggression, and judicial problems. Men are also more likely to attempt or die by suicide.
Gender norms may affect young men’s mental health in different ways. These include:
- Help-Seeking – Masculinity norms typically discourage men from showing weakness, expressing their emotions, or seeking help from others (particularly other men). Men are less likely to ask for help for mental health problems from both friends and mental health professionals. Without support, mental health concerns are more likely to get worse, and recovery is much more difficult. With some more serious mental health disorders, recovery without treatment may be almost impossible.
- Recognising Emotions – When young men are pressured not to speak about their emotions, they may find it hard to express how they are feeling in words or even to recognise their inner experiences. This means that they may not be able to identify feelings of sadness, anxiety, or other emotions or understand where they come from. They may also not be exposed to discussions about mental health disorders like anxiety or depression, making it more difficult for them to notice symptoms.
- Career Pressure – Pressure to have a stable career with enough income to support a family can cause young men stress and anxiety about school, exams, further education, and work.
- Violence and Aggression – Some ideas of masculinity are connected with violence and aggression. This can lead to both serious physical harm and psychological damage, including fear and trauma.
- Substance Abuse and Risky Behaviours – Without support from others, young men may lack the resources to respond to emotional challenges in healthy ways. Instead, they may turn to harmful coping mechanisms like substance abuse or risky behaviours that only exacerbate mental health concerns.
Stoicism and Men’s Mental Health
Stoicism is a trait that has traditionally been associated with masculinity. It describes the tendency to be unaffected by challenges and to suppress or control emotions.
A 2008 study looked into the relationship between stoicism and mental health. It found that while stoicism is not only found among men, men were significantly more likely to express stoicism than women. Stoicism was also linked to lower overall well-being and may also be associated with interpersonal difficulties.
Interestingly, the study found that the relationship between stoicism and well-being was fully mediated by an individual’s willingness to seek professional psychological help. This suggests that the most harmful aspect of stoicism may be its tendency to avoid asking for support from other people in the face of life’s challenges, making it harder to cope with difficult thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
How Can Gender Norms Change?
While masculine gender norms can harm young men’s mental health, there is capacity for change. Evidence shows that social norms do change – sometimes very quickly. This can happen through social movements, public policy, legal reforms, activism, critical reflection within communities, and many other means.
There have been increasing calls for more young men to take part in policy-making to try and improve men’s mental health, using the media, education, and community settings to change the way boys and men approach difficult emotions, help-seeking, and challenges in general.
Some programs involve older male students supporting younger ones to develop healthier attitudes and promote positive male identities. School-based workshops may also help to encourage openness and help-seeking among teenagers and adolescents.
How Can Treatment Help Young Men Recover from Mental Health Concerns?
When young people are struggling with a mental health disorder, it’s usually very hard for them to recover on their own. However, with effective support, recovery is possible – and there are now several different evidence-based treatment approaches available for most mental health conditions that are proven to improve symptoms and help young people reclaim their lives. That’s why it’s so important that young men feel comfortable, willing, and able to seek support.
Young men living with mental health disorders may benefit from different medical, therapeutic, and alternative approaches. Some of these may include:
- Behavioural therapies like cognitive behavioural therapy or dialectical behavioural therapy
- Group therapies
- Family therapy
- Mindfulness and yoga
- Creative arts therapy
The most effective treatment for each young person depends on the type of mental health challenges they face and their own unique needs. Many young people benefit from a combination of different approaches and sometimes they may have to try more than one option until they find the one that works best for them.
The Wave Clinic: Specialist Recovery Programs for Young People
The Wave Clinic is a specialist mental health treatment centre in Malaysia, dedicated to the lives of young people. Our trauma-focused programs set the global standard for young people’s mental healthcare, combining clinical excellence with education, community responsibility, and a gap year experience. We focus on creating dreams, planning for the future, and building life advantage.
Our philosophy is rooted in inclusion and fairness. We work with young people to challenge implicit stigmas, grow in self-confidence, and embrace their true selves. We offer opportunities for enriching experiences, vocational education, and alternative therapies as young people learn more about who they are and how to achieve their goals.
If you would like to find out more about our programs, contact us today. We’re here for you.