The ‘stoic’ stereotype and its impact on men’s mental health

Amanda Lyons

31/10/2018 2:54:38 PM

As the rate of suicide among Australian men continues to climb, there are increasing calls to reconsider how we define ‘successful’ masculinity.

It is becoming increasingly recognised that the Australian ‘stoic’ stereotype of masculinity is damaging for many men’s mental health.
It is becoming increasingly recognised that the Australian ‘stoic’ stereotype of masculinity is damaging for many men’s mental health.

When Tom Harkin, Australia’s ‘bloke whisperer’, asks teenage boys what kinds of rules define masculinity, the words and phrases he hears over and over again include ‘fearless’, ‘strong’, ‘muscles’, ‘don’t cry’, ‘no emotions’.
‘We grow up so early on and it is all about being tough, being strong, being invulnerable,’ he told the ABC.
But, as Mr Harkin and a growing number of concerned Australians are beginning to highlight, trying to conform to these stereotypes of masculinity can come at a high cost.
The male suicide rate has hit epidemic numbers in Australia, amounting to six men a day – double the rate of the road toll. Many other men are simply struggling in their day-to-day lives, with one in eight experiencing depression and one in five anxiety at some point in their lives.
Dr James Antoniadis, a GP and psychodynamic psychotherapist, has seen many of his male patients experience problems as a result of their efforts to fit into masculine stereotypes.
‘In Australia, the cultural paradigm is of the stoic farmer who works the land and never complains, cuts his hand with a chainsaw and just wraps it up and keeps working. It’s very much a “get on with it” sort of masculine ideal,’ he told newsGP.
‘But the downside is that those men, in times of emotional difficulty, haven’t got the ability or even the words to think through their emotional problems.’
Dr Antoniadis believes men’s efforts to conform to such cultural ideals often leads to an inability to even recognise their feelings in the first place.
‘In order to not show your emotions, it’s more effective if you can deny them, even to yourself,’ he said.  
‘As a result, you get men who can’t speak or think about their emotions – instead, they feel unwell or that something is not right.
‘If you try to tease out the problem, they can’t put their finger on it; often they’ll point to symptoms, which might be drinking or acting out violently or something like that, but they can’t say what underlies those sorts of acting out.’

 Dr James Antoniadis has seen many males struggle to conform to masculine stereotypes.

Such ‘acting out’ may often lie behind the fact that men are more likely than women to engage in risky behaviours such as substance abuse or risky driving, especially as anger is one of the few emotions considered to be culturally acceptable for many men.
‘Anger is associated with aggression, which is associated with forcefulness and masculinity,’ Dr Antoniadis explained. ‘So sadness is often ignored and instead becomes channelled into anger and other “acceptable” outlets for emotions to do with violence and competitiveness.
‘The ability to express [feelings] in much more subtle and appropriate ways is diminished.’
The conversion of emotion into anger can also lead to violence and increased risk of harms to the women and children in men’s lives.
‘Domestic violence is often exacerbated by men’s inability to explore in more detail what’s going on for them emotionally,’ Dr Antoniadis said.
‘They know something is making them angry and will act on that, rather than be able to dig deeper and see that maybe underneath that feeling might be a sadness about things not having turned out the way they want, or some grief that is unresolved.’
An inability to recognise and discuss emotions can also lead many men to despair and isolation.
‘One way we deal with our despair is to think it through, talk it through and find solutions,’ Dr Antoniadis said.
‘But if you haven’t got the words to even get to the point where you can start to find answers or grieve problems that can’t be solved, you end up with a continuing, uninterrupted despair. That can drive anybody to the point of suicide, but the fact that men in particular have a higher rate shows they’re really unable to resolve that despair.
‘The other side is that the stoic male stereotype prevents them being able to share that despair with others who might then be able to put some perspective on it.
‘If a man could go to their friends and say, “This is what’s bothering me”, they might be able to respond, “That happens to a lot of us, it might be something demanded of you that’s unfair or unreasonable”.’
Dr Antoniadis advises GPs to consider that, when men come to a consultation feeling unwell in an undefined way, the problem might not always be physical.
‘What GPs should look out for in men is a deficit of words for emotions,’ he said. ‘It’s important to really drill down into the language people use.
‘The common one is, “I feel sick”. When someone says that, doctors often assume it means some sort of physical ailment or symptoms, and it doesn’t necessarily. Even if it does, these might be related more to anxiety or sadness.’
Dr Antoniadis is also keenly aware that many male patients may feel the need to seek out a ‘quick fix’ for mental health issues, even if a longer-term treatment such as therapy would be more helpful.
‘Many men just want to get better quickly because they think that’s what’s expected of them, so it’s, “Just give me a prescription”, and we often think that’s what the patient wants,’ he said.
‘We need to make sure we don’t just buy into that because the guy thinks he’s got to get on with things.’
Dr Antoniadis is pleased to see programs in Australia like The Men’s Project and Tomorrow Man, and hopes to see change across the whole of society in terms of what is categorised as positive and successful masculinity.
‘We tend to idealise men of action and denigrate men who are more thoughtful or emotional, we often think that a successful man who shows his emotions is showing a failing,’ he said.
‘But I think, in fact, what’s often happening is their ability to show their emotions is one of their skill sets that helps them to become successful because they can think about how they feel about things.
‘Hopefully these sorts of programs might go some way towards giving people a sense that there’s more to masculinity than just silently carrying on.’

masculinity men’s health mental health suicide

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Pierre Sands   2/11/2018 8:59:40 AM

It’s actually because of the attempts to chanbge our view of masculinity that the suicide rate is going up. It was quite low back in the dark days of male ‘stoicism.’

Dr James Antoniadis   2/11/2018 9:55:23 AM

The Australian Department of Health reported that the age standardised rate of suicide decreased from 14.7 per 100,000 people in 1997, to 10.3 in 2005.[3]

Deaths from suicide occur among males at a rate three times greater than that for females. In 2016, the standardised death rate for males was 17.8 deaths per 100,000 people, while for females it was 5.8 deaths per 100,000 people.[1]

Dr Pradeep Samarakoon   2/11/2018 6:06:19 PM

It is unfortunate that the common use of the word ''stoic'' (meaning-
"a person who can endure pain or hardship without showing their feelings or complaining" Reference Wikipedia) implies only the endurance part of it. What should actually happen is a person achieving a certain capacity to endure by understanding the true nature of human existence. Things can not go right all the time, some times things go wrong more than right. I do not think "stoic" is the right word to use in this feature. It is . True happiness is not just about not having to man up and being able to cry. It isa about better understanding human existence.

Matthew   7/11/2018 4:08:23 AM

19 years ago I made a semi-serious attempt at suicide which left me hospitalised for a week. Years later, a trigger event lead me on a path of self-realisation. I addressed my demons and realised how a nasty childhood had left me completely emotionally disregulated and with chronic depression / anxiety. Perhaps talking over my problems would have helped me but as somebody who couldn't afford a therapist, reading (alone) has helped me the most - a combination of developmental psychology and self-help - finding out all of the science / evidence behind where things may have gone wrong for me and investigating suggestions for how best to move forward. Mental Health Professionals who are more often female and let's face it, get paid to talk / listen often push 'talking about it' as the optimal solution - in my case learning facts (alone) helped me the most. Meditation / Mindfulness has undoubtedly helped me too. Finally, stoicism and gratitude practice have been key to my ongoing recovery. Stoicism is the antidote to blaming the external world for your problems. It also helps you to form a strong sense of self. I would also say that now looking after myself better, lifting some weights to feel happier about my body and feeling like a man, rather than a terrified / useless little boy have been key to my improved mental well-being. For me, embracing traditional masculinity has been part of the solution, not part of the problem.