written by Shridula Gopinath
In September last year, India’s Social Justice and Empowerment Ministry launched “Kiran”, a 24/7 mental health helpline. An internal report, accessed by “The Hindu”, recorded data gathered between September 16th 2020 to January 15th 2021 which showed that over 70% of the calls received were by men. The inequality in these numbers is far from a coincidence. Instead, it exposes a much larger structural problem surrounding the issue of gender and mental health which millions of men battle with everyday. Canetto and Sakinofsky (1998) argue that there is a Gender Paradox in suicide, where women display higher suicidal ideation, but men have higher suicide rates. This paradox is likely to be explained by reluctance of men to report mental health issues and suicidal ideations. This raises questions about the ideals of masculinity and why they appear to be so incongruent with help seeking behaviour.
Where does it stem from?
The subtle practice of quelling emotional expression in men tends to begin with gendered socialisation at a very young age. Irrespective of our gender, we have all heard the phrase “Boys don’t cry” used when growing up. What about “don’t act like a girl” or, later on, “Man up”? Not only does this discourage men from showing emotion and communicating openly, it adds a stereotypical female connotation to all things related to feeling. This becomes more apparent as a problem when we take the wider patriarchal context into consideration. In societies like ours, things viewed as traditionally female are almost always synonymous with being inferior, shallow, and weak. General misconceptions about, and stigma surrounding, mental health are, therefore, made even more difficult to shatter when another layer of perceived shame is tightly fastened around almost half of the population. This barrier is even more difficult to penetrate since it is so deeply indoctrinated within us, to the extent where it is closely linked to one’s own identity. These toxic messages have been reinforced through cultural institutions and socialisation agencies, such as the media, and ridicule and criticism faced for failure to meet expectations of traditional masculinity, cements these notions.
How does this ignite the problem?
Anybody who has experienced any mental illness for any period of time will agree that one of its most debilitating effects is the alienation and detachment one feels from their loved ones and the rest of the world, and more often than not, having somebody who makes you feel heard, be it a friend or a family member or a professional, can go a long way. This support and reassurance, that you are not alone in your experiences, can only be found when one feels able to open up and share their honest vulnerabilities and struggles- which is something men are usually discouraged from doing. As a result, the tendency to silently endure the pain by themselves, and not seek support from others, causes feelings of isolation to grow to the point where it may feel consuming.
The Kiran Helpline and The Gender Suicide Paradox
The Kiran helpline keeps the identity of the callers anonymous. There is no face-to-face interaction with the person at the other end, nor any worry of knowing the person on the other end personally. With these added layers of protection, men no longer need to worry about how they will be socially perceived. There is something to be said about the culture we have fostered if the only time when people feel comfortable enough to reach out for help is when they are able to divorce their issues and experiences from their individual and social identity.
Mental illness does not target any specific demographic but the solution for it seems to. Canetto and Sakinofsky (1998) conclude there being an “underreporting on the part of suicidal males because of fear of social stigma, as well as underreporting by researchers, who may miss suicidal cues in males”. This argues that people may not be able to pick up subtle signals, if put across as cries for help from men. These indirect hints may, however, be the only ways in which men may be comfortable asking for help, since more upfront confessions of their struggles could feel intimidating and difficult to express.
Is this only a male issue?
Since men who suffer from mental health problems are a large section of the population, the stigma does not affect just them in particular. Much of this repressed sadness could release in unhealthy ways, such as anger. Anger is a gendered emotion and is typically perceived as more masculine, and therefore a more acceptable reaction from men, despite it being far from the truth. Although anger is a natural response to various situations, it is not exclusive to a particular gender, and the actions that follow unchecked emotional outbursts could have negative consequences for all those involved. In extreme cases, it may lead to physical or mental abuse of oneself or others around. This is just one example of the ways in which the combination of toxic masculinity and mental health issues can have disastrous impacts. Maya Salam, a writer for the New York Times, explains “Toxic masculinity is what can come of teaching boys that they can’t express emotion openly; that they have to be “tough all the time”; that anything other than that makes them “feminine” or weak. (No, it doesn’t mean that all men are inherently toxic.)”. It’s a seemingly impossible situation which benefits nobody but is perpetuated by many.
Mental health advocacy and awareness has done wonders over the years, but it still has a long battle to fight. With more articles, resources, and research, coming out everyday, and people being more open and speaking out about their honest experiences, the cold hard casing of toxic masculinity is beginning to slowly melt away. Gender equality activists also raise awareness about the destructive capacities gender roles have on everybody, and with the rise of information, access, and acceptance, more people of all genders are beginning to feel less alone in themselves, and more willing to seek help. The responsibility to keep doors to help open, and check in on how friends and family members are feeling, falls on everybody. Regardless of their gender identity and expression, everybody is equally deserving of help, and should feel just as able as the next person able to reach out and be heard.
Canetto, Silvia & Sakinofsky, Isaac. (1998). The Gender Paradox in Suicide. Suicide & life-threatening behavior. 28. 1-23
Damini Nath. “Ministry’s Mental Health Helpline Sees Most Calls from Men.” The Hindu, The Hindu, 7 Feb. 2021, www.thehindu.com/news/national/ministrys-mental-health-helpline-sees-most-calls-from-men/article33774872.ece. Accessed 9 Feb. 2021.
Salam, Maya “What Is Toxic Masculinity? (Published 2019).” The New York Times, 2021, www.nytimes.com/2019/01/22/us/toxic-masculinity.html. Accessed 22 Feb. 2021.