'Toxic masculinity' stopping boys from seeking mental health help

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Fear of shame or feeling “weak” is deterring young men from seeking help for mental health problems – and when they do ask for help, many are not getting it.

A survey involving 1,068 young men aged 14 to 21 (including 801 aged 14 to 18) found that 46 per cent would not ask for help for a problem that was making them upset, anxious, or depressed – “even if things got really bad”.

When asked why, the research, which was conducted in October 2021, found that:

  • 36 per cent said they didn’t have the courage.
  • 32 per cent said they “don’t want to make a fuss”.
  • 30 per cent said they would feel weak or ashamed.
  • 21 per cent worried that people would laugh or think less of them.
  • 14 per cent said they would “feel less masculine”.
  • 15 per cent said they don’t know how to ask for help.

The UK survey by youth mental health charity Stem4 also shows that many young men do not receive support when they ask for it.

Thirty-seven per cent said they were currently experiencing mental health difficulties. Of these, 51 per cent had not spoken to anyone, 21 per cent were receiving treatment, and 29 per cent had asked for help but were not receiving treatment.

The most prevalent mental health difficulties reported in the survey were stress (47 per cent), anxiety (27 per cent), and depression or low mood (33 per cent). Other common problems included eating disorders (11 per cent), anger and behavioural issues (10 per cent) and self-harm behaviours (nine per cent).

When asked for ideas on positive steps schools and others could take to protect and improve the mental health of young people, the respondents suggested:

  • Regular mental health check-ups.
  • Safe places in which to ask for help.
  • One-on-one in-person treatment with therapists, not group sessions.
  • Better PSHE education in schools with practical guidance on how to ask for help.
  • Education for families on how to spot early signs of mental ill-health, and how to talk to their children.
  • Better, faster access to treatment.
  • Recognition that loneliness is real for boys and young men.

The research also asked the respondents which factors most affected their mental health and found that 46 per cent identified “pressure from peers to behave in a dominant masculine way” while 25 per cent said being associated with peers who treat girls and women disrespectfully was another factor. Other causes identified were loneliness, bullying, and the pressure to look good or have a good body.

Comments from the boys in the survey included:

  • School pupil, 16, London: “Men aren't supposed to have emotions. Parents push toxic masculinity onto their children. It messes their head up later in life.”
  • School pupil, 15, East of England: “I had a suicide attempt and I got told to man up. If I was a girl, I would get so much more support.”
  • School pupil, 16, North East: “There is support, but it's difficult to talk about mental health issues when you get laughed at.”

Dr Nihara Krause, consultant clinical psychologist and CEO and founder of Stem4, said: “We live in a culture that puts huge pressure on boys and young men to behave in particular ways, many of them damaging to their mental health.

“Our survey shows exactly why this is so damaging, with many suffering in silence, even when they’re approaching crisis point.

“If we’re going to tackle boys and young men’s mental health, we have to address the cultural blind-spots to male mental health. It’s also time to start listening properly to boys and men, understand how they express their needs, and provide services that will benefit them.”

Stem4 is a charity working with young people, parents and schools and focusing on addressing commonly occurring mental health issues in teenagers including eating disorders, anxiety, depression, self-harm, and addiction.

Stem4 offers free access to four NHS-approved smartphone apps to help young people in the treatment of and recovery from mental health difficulties including managing anxiety, the urge to self-harm, and depression.


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