Men’s Silence

Silent doesn’t mean taciturn. A man might talk endlessly, constantly interrupting others. But all he does is tell jokes and talk about sports and politics. No one really knows what’s going on inside him.

Men’s silence is often socially enforced. The call to “man up” and the meme “I bathe in male tears” discourage men from showing their vulnerability. Perhaps that’s why Mad Men‘s Don Draper tries so hard to avoid dealing with his troubled childhood. An ad exec, Don is the archetype of strong and silent. Changing his name from Dick Whitman is symbolic of his inner disconnection, and Mad Men is a chronicle of the external consequences.

Don is a hard man to like. He’s a womanizer and alcoholic who leaves a trail of broken relationships. Raised an unloved orphan, his first sexual experience as a boy with an older woman would have been called statutory rape if it had happened to a girl at the hands of a man. How did this contribute to his future womanizing? Could it be that he’s not so much a chauvinist as he is a man struggling with the power women have over him?

Don doesn’t think to ask these questions, and even if he did he might be told to quit his whining. He’d be shoved back into silence.

In Invisible Men, Michael Addis describes three types of silence: Personal silence is a lack of self-awareness. Private silence is when you know how you feel but choose to keep it to yourself. And public silence is when you try to open up to others but are shot down, often in subtle ways.

Don’s silence is internal and lacking self-awareness. In the final season he takes off without saying a word to anyone. Winding up at a hippie retreat in California, he’s initially resistant to all the touchy-feely stuff but ends up calling his coworker Peggy on the verge of tears, struggling to reevaluate his life. Then in group therapy a man talks about his feelings of invisibility. Shocking everyone, Don hugs the man.

Most men must struggle with the double bind of being told that showing vulnerability is a weakness, and then being blamed for their silence. And there’s often a misguided assumption that men are silent on purpose, to punish their partners.

What does Don do with his new found self-awareness? The final episode ends with the famous 1971 “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” commercial. Does the ad show that Don opens up to others about his need to be valued as a person? Or upon returning to the ad world, does Don bury his emotions again? That’s for you to decide.

Addis notes that people will communicate under the right circumstances, and men are no exception. He writes that masculinity can be viewed as a “transaction between a person and his environment” (his emphasis). That is, fulfilling social expectations to avoid rejection. As such, anger, aggression, posturing, arrogance, and silence can be masks for the deeper issue, such as fear, sadness, anxiety, rejection, and social isolation.

A recent study with men and video games found that men who bully women online often do so because of competition within the male hierarchy (though sexism is also an obvious factor too).

Specifically, women are more attracted to high-status men, and a man’s place in the male hierarchy is heavily influenced by his desirability to women. But low-status men who are outperformed by women fear that they become even less desirable to women, thus pushing these men further down the male hierarchy.

Loss of status is hard for men to deal with because men are already more likely to be socially isolated than women. However, the study doesn’t address why high-status males bully low-status males. Likely it’s enforcement of their higher status in the hierarchy. The same is true for high-status women and girls who bully those of lower status.

It’s true that raising emotionally aware boys could improve things. Teaching empathy is also critical. But empathy for men and boys is just as critical.

The larger issue is societal acceptance and encouragement of men opening up. This means a shift in male culture to something less hierarchical and toward offering support to other men rather than expecting men to resolve their issues independently and silently.

Advertisements

Psychology for Men

Writing for the Telegraph, Martin Daubney asks, “Why isn’t there more of a focus on male psychology?” Severe mental health problems are more likely to affect men, and more common issues such as depression occur equally in men despite men being underdiagnosed.

Men have a reputation for not opening up. But people will open up when they feel safe doing so. This means taking men seriously, not minimizing their concerns, and not blaming them.

Sitting down and talking might not always be the best strategy. I know a psychologist who told me that the best conversations he’s had with his dad was when they were playing golf. An activity can be a powerful tool for men. Especially when we don’t push a man to start talking right away, instead letting him take his time, and allowing for the ebb and flow of conversation with silences and interludes of more superficial and even humorous talk.

And sometimes only men can connect with other men. The idea of male only support groups may be met with resistance in some circles, however. But Daubney quotes Martin Seager from Men’s Minds Matter:

…in single-sex groups men can be very blokey one minute, then talk about something incredibly painful the next. It really worked. Men are very worried about shame and embarrassment, and there are rules about masculinity that need to be honoured, not belittled.

He continues,

If men are alone in a room they are tremendously good at supporting each other; they’re like soldiers in combat that really care for each other. So we realised that a men’s group is a really powerful space.

A focus on toxic masculinity, however, may only make things worse. Seager says,

Men don’t need to ‘man up’ and they don’t need to ‘woman up’ – be more like women. We need to allow men to be men and honour that, on their terms – and that comes from 30 years’ experience in clinical practice.

Psychology for men must start with what men need rather than a critique of masculinity, lists of how men need to change, or an analysis of how men’s communication styles are wrong.

Men & Suicide

In the United States 77% of people who commit suicide are men. In every country (except China) men are more likely to die by their own hands.

Why?

June is men’s health month, and mental health is as important as physical health. So let’s take a look at men, depression, and suicide.

Some answers are facile. Men are more likely to use extreme methods, such as a gun, while women are more likely to swallow pills. But using a more fatal method simply shows a greater desire to die. It doesn’t explain why men are more likely to feel that way.

On the other hand, women report more suicidal thoughts than men do. But is it possible that men have as many (or more) suicidal thoughts but don’t report it?

Men aren’t supposed to need help. Recently I had to put air in my tires, but I couldn’t get the cap off one tire stem. I asked a fellow traveler if she had pliers. She grabbed a pair from her trunk and removed the cap. I thanked her, but her irritation with me was evident.

No big deal. But what if I needed help with something far bigger – with my emotional life disintegrating to the point where I felt suicidal?

There’s a reason men don’t ask for help.

Solid data on suicide attempts are hard to come by, but anecdotally women are more likely to attempt suicide. However, those attempting suicide often don’t want to die and instead are communicating their need for help. A cry for help means the person believes someone may actually help them.

But no one attempts suicide with a gun – they really want to die. Are men less likely to believe anyone will help them, leaving a final exit as the only perceived option?

Depression plays a large role in suicide, and here too we find a gender difference. Women are more likely than men to be diagnosed with depression. But if women suffer from depression more than men, why do men commit suicide at such higher rates?

Perhaps mental health professionals don’t recognize depression in men because there are differences in the way men and women experience depression. This is not a new idea: the evidence that men suffer from depression at similar rates as women goes back more than a quarter century

Psychiatry’s manual of mental disorders, the DSM-5, lists symptoms of depression such as fatigue, loss of interest in fun stuff, feelings of guilt, sleeping too much or too little, and of course suicidal thoughts. But depressed men are more likely than depressed women to be more aggressive, to engage in risky behaviors, and abuse substances.

One problem is that there’s a shortage of men in the mental health field, and a consequence is treatment more geared toward women than men. Alternative approaches such as ManTherapy, which uses humor to engage men, have yet to catch on.

Though teen suicide is a big concern, middle age suicide is often overlooked. Alice G. Walton writes in Forbes that “there’s still a lot of pressure on men to fill out the masculine husband role, whatever socioeconomic class one is in, and the reality is that today this classic role may be somewhat unrealistic.” Somewhat?

Poor and divorced men are especially vulnerable for suicide because they have experienced a loss of the primary male role, which is to serve as a resource for women and children (specifically, to provide and protect). Divorced women don’t face a similar loss of the traditional female role (caring for children) because mothers are far more likely than fathers to get custody of the children. But most of all, women have greater social networks and social supports than men.

Let’s recap: Men experience depression as often as women but are less likely to be diagnosed. Women attempt suicide more because they believe their cry for help will be heeded. Men are much less likely to believe anyone will help, and men are more likely to be shamed for asking for help. Men are more socially isolated than women. And job losses and divorce have a far more negative impact on men because traditional gender role expectations are more rigid for men.

It’s not just about what men need to do differently. That men must take action is a 1950s ethos which no longer serves men’s interest. Were it more socially acceptable for men to ask for help, men would do so. But this isn’t just about men’s view of the male gender role: women must also change their perceptions (see Heather Gray’s Are We Really Ready For Emotionally Intelligent Men?).

Further, we must raise awareness that suicide is a gendered issue. This requires rowing against the zero sum current which says that any focus on men’s issues comes at the detriment of women’s issues. Mental health professionals, and especially substance abuse counselors, must be educated on how to spot depression and suicide risk in men. Finally, mental health treatment should consider unorthodox approaches such as the humor of ManTherapy to reach men who might otherwise avoid therapy.