What being masculine really means for men’s mental health in New Zealand

Mental health is a topic that many men are reluctant to talk about. One indicator of our reluctance is the simple fact that, while NZ males report lower rates of depression and anxiety than NZ females, men accounted for roughly three-quarters (72%) of NZ suicides in 2020.

While there are many complex and individual factors at play in any suicide, psychology researchers point to masculine social norms – the unwritten rules about how men should behave – as playing a hidden influence in men’s mental health. Masculine social norms can influence the way in which men express depression and anxiety (for example, externally through anger and irritability, rather than sadness and tearfulness), how we cope, why we use more substances and why we don’t reach out for help from others.

So what are masculine social norms? 

Being male and being masculine

We don’t often stop to think about it, but there is actually a difference between our biological sex (being male, female, intersex etc) and our beliefs around how someone of our gender should behave (that is masculinity, femininity, as well as various non-binary identities). Yet these socially and culturally determined beliefs and norms around our gender identities, such as masculinity, can have important influences on how we act. 

So what are NZ’s masculinity beliefs? In NZ, traditional European masculinity beliefs are rooted in the 19th century “rough, practical man who’s good with his hands and good on the land” says Otago University gender studies researcher Dr Chris Brickell. Think: “The Speights Southern Man” – tough, unwilling to show weakness, stoic to the bone. 

These NZ masculinity norms align quite closely with traditional masculine norms/stereotypes, common across Western cultures. Four key traditional Western masculinity norms have been identified by psychologist David Brannon and almost any male in NZ will recognise them:

1) men should not be feminine (“No Sissy Stuff”);
2) men should aim to be respected for successful achievement (“The Big Wheel”);
3) men should never show weakness (“The Sturdy Oak”); and
4) men should seek adventure and risk, accepting violence if necessary (“Give ’em Hell”).

Masculinity and mental health

So what’s wrong with these “traditional” masculinity norms? Well, there’s not really anything wrong with them in moderation, or when we teach our young men that there are multiple acceptable paths to masculinity in a modern society. But research shows that when we hold tightly to “traditional” masculinity norms, problems can arise.

Research from Australia indicates that men who most strongly endorse traditional masculinity norms report more mental health issues and risky behaviour. They are also more likely to perpetrate sexual harassment, violence and online bullying. This includes domestic violence, sexual violence and violence against other men. Study author Michael Flood commented:

Belief in stereotypical masculine norms among men is around 20x more important than demographic variables in predicting the use of physical violence, sexual harassment and online bullying. Endorsement of these masculine norms is also 11x more influential than other factors in predicting binge drinking and 10x more influential in predicting negative mood. 

Likewise, a systematic review found that strong beliefs that men shouldn’t show weakness and men shouldn’t be feminine are, ironically, associated with increased levels of anxiety in males and reduced help-seeking. In fact, the belief that men shouldn’t show “weakness” seems particularly damaging – studies of men have found that the belief that men shouldn’t show weakness (being overly self-reliant) is the norm most predictive of suicide.

It may seem far-fetched that these beliefs can influence male behaviour, but a 2018 study into the high rates of suicide in the NZ building industry pointed to a “culture of toxic masculinity” as a contributor. Chris Litten of the Building Research Association (BRANZ) commented: “The ‘take a concrete pill’ and ‘harden up’ attitude is really prevalent in the industry.” 

So what can we do, as men, to help ourselves?

Men supporting men’s mental health

Research suggests that the masculinity belief most harmful for men’s mental health is that men need to be “tough” or “strong” and that it is “weak” to have experienced, and to talk about, struggles in life and with our mental health. Here are some things we can do to tackle this belief:

  1. Consider what qualities you believe are most important for a man to show (and show them)

Taking the time to consider what qualities we see as most important in being modern men allows us to be more conscious about the messages and behaviours we endorse and model to others, especially our boys. It also allows us to consider what qualities are “best fit” in a modern 21st century environment. Do you need to be “tough” or is it more helpful to be “adaptable” when things are complex and changing fast? In fact, being strong or tough was a distant requirement for modern men according to the Aussie study above. The research found that participants of all ages endorsed being respectful, caring, and loving as the most important qualities a man can have. All those qualities speak to the importance of a man being able to express himself and his humanity. Being respectful is also close to the All Blacks’ value of “not being a dick”.

  1. Talk honestly about your mental health (especially with those younger than you)

The best way we can provide new helpful masculinity norms for our younger generations is to role model them. At Umbrella, we often work with organisations around creating workplace cultures that are “psychologically safe” – that is, a culture where you can take a risk to bring up something difficult, go out on a limb, and others will support you rather than cut you down. We see this most successfully done in organisations where leaders are willing to step up and walk the talk by sharing their own personal experiences and struggles. This makes it OK for others to share struggles, knowing that important leaders also go through tough times, and that those with the power to protect them identify with their experiences. The same process applies for our societal culture. And it’s not a new idea. It comes straight out of the playbook of Sir John Kirwan, Mike King, various All Blacks and other trailblazers who have been willing to share their experiences with depression and other mental health challenges. Talking about personal stuff can feel uncomfortable. So it’s helpful to remember that it’s not about us, it’s about the future, and, by talking about our own struggles, we’ll also be modelling new norms around being courageous and being honest. If it helps, we can remind ourselves that roughly 84% of New Zealanders will have experienced a diagnosable mental illness by middle age, so it’s both normal and common to have periods of mental health challenges. 

  1. Encourage reaching out (because it works)

If we’re going to support being willing to reach out, it’s important to know that it is actually a helpful strategy. Having worked in and with some of the cultures that are most perceived to be “masculine”, including military special operations, professional rugby, farmers and construction, it’s familiar to hear men claim that “sitting around talking is a waste of time”. So here’s the truth. Modern “talk therapies” aren’t about “talk” at all. It’s seldom anyone will leave a therapy session with me without something to experiment with or try out. It’s simple. Psychology treatments that science shows work for depression, anxiety and other conditions all emphasise action. That’s because changing behaviour leads to changes in the brain, which changes your outcomes and how you feel. But surprisingly, talk alone is not a waste of time. Scientific evidence shows that talking to someone else, even just one person, is really helpful for mental health. In fact, research by psychologist James Pennebaker shows that those who choose to talk to even one person about something that is burdening them have significantly better mental and physical health one year later than do those that keep things secret. Not talking is a stressor for both the mind and the body.  

So, in this month of highlighting men’s mental health, let’s remember that there are more paths to being “masculine” than just the traditional norms. We all have a part to play in promoting the idea that there is more than one path to masculinity, and the paths that are heading toward a better future for the mental health of NZ men are heading in the direction of qualities that really count: being respectful, caring, honest, courageous, loving and not being a dick to those who are brave enough to share their journey.