Men, the Patriarchy, and Mental Health

This article deals with mental health and potentially triggering themes. There are brief mentions of suicide and sexual assault in this piece. Please take care of yourself and proceed with caution.

With each passing year, the word “feminist” becomes more and more mainstream. As we continue to have conversations about gender, the movement is no longer a fringe idea spread by bra-burning man-haters. Feminists are people of all ages, gender expressions, and races. Of course, with the expansion of every movement, there is the inevitable tension that comes with the name recognition. Important discussions about the intersections of race and gender are common and often intense. As a younger generation pushes for more progressive and inclusive messaging, feminists everywhere recognize that the movement could be completely different than it currently is in just a few short years. Even in the midst of all this chaos, there are central themes that have stood the test of time. Among these themes is an important question that remains central to the feminist movement:

What about men?

As long as women have fought for their basic human rights, men have felt excluded––isolated in their privilege and confused about why this one thing isn’t about them. From the wage gap to healthcare, (white, cis) men have tried to commandeer the struggle to include them.

The issue of mental health is no exception.

If you’ve ever been in conversation about mental health you’ve heard this tidbit: that white men actually have the highest suicide rate out of anyone in the country. Of course, I want to acknowledge the truth in this. Due to toxic masculinity, men are discouraged--or even violently silenced--when speaking about their emotions. From a young age, they are expected to be tough and manly––often before they are taught to cope with their emotions. Little boys are told to toughen up, and crying is a social death sentence. Even the idyllic American Dream is killing men who are presented with unrealistic visions of a white picket fence and a doting wife before the age of twenty-five.

While I understand that societal pressures are detrimental to mental health (really, I get it), too often we have this conversation about how the patriarchy actually hits men the hardest. While mental health is one piece of toxic masculinity, it certainly isn’t the whole picture.

In high school, a couple of boys wore “Meninist” shirts to school––mostly to pick fights and secure their statuses as the Certified Biggest Assholes. Following an intense fallout, the shirts were banned and the school’s brand new feminism club had a meeting to discuss. At the meeting, a few boys showed up, and while they were genuinely curious and well-intended, they had a hard time de-centering themselves from the conversation.

They reminded the leaders of the club about the broken court system (how women are picked over men in custody battles) and this statistic about how men kill themselves at a higher rate. I appreciated their presence––especially at a time when many boys would rather stick pins in their eyes than accept authority from female classmates––but I also wished we could hold a discussion that didn’t cater to their needs. Using these facts, they steered the conversation back to their role. Though full of goodwill, this statistic has a divisive impact more often than not.

I’ve never heard this statistic brought up in a solution-orientated setting. Rather, it is used as a tool to remind women and other marginalized groups that privileged men are also the victims. That even in a meeting about women-specific issues, they should still be offered a prime and central seat at the table. I’ve even heard this statistic used to prove that women perpetuate toxic masculinity, making it harder for men to seek the help they need.

Actually, women are paying the price for men’s inability to seek help. Somehow, a problem created by the patriarchy still finds a way to impact women, crazy. It is reported that men go to therapy far less than women. While this sounds like a problem for men (and of course, we see that reflected in the numbers), it also means that the women in their lives have to step in as emotional support.

In the worst cases, this manifests itself in domestic violence. Not equipped to process emotions through communication, women will too often die at the hands of men who are unwilling and unable to communicate. Even in the best-case scenario, women find themselves doing the emotional labor men avoid at all costs.

While men suffer under the pressure of having to be tough and unemotional, women are expected to be nurturing and selfless. Given the role of wife and mother before all else, the historical role of the woman is to tend to a man’s emotional wellbeing. Men seek to bottle their emotions up in the outside world and finally, the flow of emotional stress comes flooding out onto the shoulders of the women in their lives. Whether that’s a girlfriend, mother, or close friend, women are expected to play the role of therapist and counselor––all for free.

As a woman, I struggle to simultaneously acknowledge the burdens men carry in terms of mental health and survive in a world that was designed exclusively for them. Toxic masculinity is so woven into my daily routine, I couldn’t imagine my day without it. Living and traveling in a city means constantly accounting for the effects of rape culture and patriarchy I see in my life.

It means running to catch a bus because that extra ten minutes waiting could jeopardize my safety. It means planning a “modest” outfit when I leave campus because life is just easier that way, even when it means I have to leave that dress I like so much in the closet. It means knowing that actively participating in a class I love will alienate my classmates, even while my male counterparts will talk for minutes on end. It means making myself smaller so they can feel bigger. It means sacrificing likeability to recognize my own worth.

While this is my normal, I wonder if privileged men stop to consider how toxic masculinity impacts the people around them. Do they do this same reflecting I do? Do they struggle with their relationship to privilege and the world around them? In their pursuit of mental wellness, do they see themselves as part of an interconnected whole?

My words might sound unrelenting, but it’s because I want to get to the root of this problem. We will continue to lose people of all genders if we proceed down this trajectory. Men will continue to build up walls and women will continue to shoulder the emotional burdens for the men in their lives.  Our system is broken, and toxic masculinity claims more lives every day. How can men overcome their expected gender roles and reach out for help?

I have one simple, if not exceedingly obvious solution: men, this one’s on you. Identify places where toxic masculinity run your life, seek to acknowledge and tweak your habits one at a time. Refrain from mocking emotion, whether it’s in your day-to-day interactions, in the media--even your own personal emotions. Check-in with your friends, even if they seem totally fine. Make space to talk about your mental health that doesn’t put the women in your life as your sole emotional guardian. Of course, you can confide and seek solace in women you trust, but don’t use them as a crutch. Remember, we are people with complex emotions; we aren’t capable of soaking in emotional trauma for two, even if we bear the burden anyway.