'Toxic stereotypes’ have detrimental effect on men’s mental health

Kathryn Wheeler
By Kathryn Wheeler,
updated on Feb 12, 2021

'Toxic stereotypes’ have detrimental effect on men’s mental health

The latest findings highlight a link between damaging male stereotypes and poor mental health

If you stopped to think about it, it’s likely that within minutes you’d be able to list countless examples of damaging gendered stereotypes that you have encountered in the media. From the hyper-masculine womanisers on reality TV shows to useless dads in adverts, and the stoic home-provider in films and shows, these figures take their toll.

The suicide rate among young men is at its highest in decades and, according to new research from suicide prevention charity Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM), these toxic media stereotypes could be doing real damage.

In the report, researchers found that one in seven men aged between 18 and 34 have thought about harming themselves in the past three months, and nearly two-thirds believe that male stereotypes in advertising do real psychological harm.

Diving deeper into the stereotypes at play, 91% believe that the trope of being ‘mean to women’ is the most harmful, while 79% think the same about being ‘sex-obsessed’. Additionally, traditional ideas about ‘always being strong’ or being ‘a lad’ were also highlighted as being damaging.

For Babatunji Fagbongbe, founder & CEO The Present dads, it was this idea of ‘strength’ that led him to burnout.

“My experience is burning myself out in the name of providing for family, based on the stereotype that the ‘man must be the provider and do all that he can to provide’, which puts a lot of pressure on men and affects their mental health,” Babatunji shares.

“I picked this up from various sources, like the picture of the hardworking man that comes back from work tired and slumps into the couch.

“How has this affected me? I put lots of pressure on myself to work harder and do more, even when my health was clearly suffering – which led to me being irritable, stressed, and going for months without sleep.”

The ad fad

Our daily lives are flooded with advertisements, which creep into our consciousness – sometimes introducing unhealthy and self-limiting beliefs.

CALM found that 80% of men think that brands and advertisers should try to present a more positive impression of men’s mental health, and 44% believe that they should promote a more diverse range of body shapes.

And positivity sells – as 51% say they are significantly more likely to buy from a brand that is actively breaking away from offensive male stereotypes.

Babatunji’s experience is one that may resonate with many and, as Lee Chambers – Environmental Psychologist and Wellbeing Consultant – explains, these stereotypes can quickly spiral out of control.

“Toxic gender stereotypes are problematic for a number reasons,” he explains. “Firstly, they place barriers to what we think we can achieve, taking away options and opportunities from our vision of what is possible. They stifle our ability to express our authentic selves, pulling us to conform to societal stereotypes and suppressing our thoughts and feelings that are meaningful to us.

“They can create a sense of shame that we are not aligning with the stereotype, which can fuel feelings of unworthiness and lack of purposefulness. Most importantly, they can cause us to take a series of actions and decisions that are detrimental to our mental wellbeing, cause us to question our values, and end up in a cycle of looking outside ourselves for answers.”

Speaking out about experiences, whether that’s with friends, family, partners, or to a mental health professional, can be hugely helpful, and CALM’s research found that 56% of men believe that the best way to promote a positive perception of masculinity is to normalise getting help, and a further 44% believe men should be shown that it’s OK to fail.

Considering the findings of the study, Simon Gunning – CEO of CALM – says that there’s more to be done to really understand young men’s needs, and to make sure that they have access to suitable support and resources.

“Despite making significant strides over the past couple of years, the MANdate research shows that there is still a long way to go in removing the stigma surrounding male mental health,” says Simon. “It's a decades-old issue and it's time we tackle this as a society by giving men permission to seek help. The media must look beyond unhelpful gender norms such as ‘strong’ equating to silent.”

Seeking help is not always easy – and, often, that first step is the hardest to take. But, while it takes courage, vulnerability is what connects us together. And, while the latest findings from CALM paint a distressing picture of the challenges that men face today, they equally highlight a shift in perspective and a move towards a world that leaves toxic stereotypes behind – looking forward to a happier, healthier society.

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