Mate, we need to talk about mental health and masculinity
The significance of Men’s Health Week is now well-established. There's a growing awareness of men’s unequal propensity towards elevated rates of particular illnesses and diseases.
Indeed, we've seen in recent months that men are more likely to die after contracting COVID-19, and scientists are doing important work to explore the implication of androgens in COVID‐19 infection severity.
But beyond biological certainties, the gender gap in health outcomes is driven also by lifestyle choices and collective social norms about what it is to be a man – that is, masculinity plays a pivotal part.
Men’s disproportionate risk-taking, accidents and premature deaths, and their relative reluctance for pro-health, or help-seeking behaviours, are all implications of the social dimensions of men’s (ill) health.
As we, hopefully, start to move out of the grip of the coronavirus pandemic, there are a variety of issues that we need to retain in our conversations with and about men’s health.
Here, Monash University researchers reflect on some of the most pressing social issues and drivers, and think about ways to generate awareness or actions for preventable health problems for men.
Community sport, men, and mental health
Associate Professor Ruth Jeanes and Dr Justen O’Connor
Encouraging men to seek help for mental health difficulties has always been challenging. Mental illness continues to carry stigma within society, but this is particularly pronounced for men. Men are less likely to recognise they're experiencing poor mental health, and reach out and connect with support services or talk to friends.
Increasingly, mental health service providers have recognised the importance of taking services to the spaces that men occupy.
Community sport is one such space where men regularly gather in large numbers, and across different age cohorts. As inherently masculine spaces, promoting mental health through community sport is not without its contradictions.
Despite shifting versions of masculinity, sport – and particularly team sport – remains a hyper-masculine space that promotes often damaging versions of masculinity based on competition, aggression and athletic ability. This can contribute to poor mental health outcomes. However, by going to the source, targeting sport represents an opportunity to break down potentially harmful norms that limit health-seeking behaviour.
Mental health organisations such as Outside the Locker Room are increasingly working with community sports clubs to deliver education that raises awareness of mental illness, gives guidance on strategies to promote positive mental health and wellbeing, and directs club members to support services. Similarly, sport is increasingly being used in initiatives aimed at supporting men’s recovery from significant mental illness, with some promising benefits.
Providing mental health support through sport can assist health practitioners with accessing the male demographic, encouraging conversations between men about mental health, as well as increasing men’s knowledge of how and where to access additional support services. Rather than requiring men to reach out, sport provides a context through which support can be directly connected to them. Mental health interventions delivered through sport warrant further attention in considering how to address stigma, and support men to engage with mental health and wellbeing.
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