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Why Masculinity May Lead Some Men to Suppress Symptoms of Anxiety

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Societal pressure plays a crucial role in men’s mental health by reinforcing traditional masculine ideals that emphasize strength, stoicism and self-reliance.

By Adam Pope

UAB News

Conversations around mental health are breaking down barriers as emphasis on emotional well-being continues to grow. However, some societal expectations of masculinity may lead some men to suppress or ignore symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Yusen Zhai, Ph.D., director of the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Community Counseling Clinic, offers insights and understanding of men’s mental health, and how loved ones can help.

What are the common signs and symptoms of male depression?

Zhai: Some signs and symptoms of depression are common across men and women. Men with depression, like women, may experience several common symptoms. They might feel sad, hopeless or empty, struggling to find joy in everyday activities. Persistent fatigue is another prevalent symptom, making it difficult for them to engage in daily tasks. Sleep disturbances are common as well, with some men having trouble sleeping while others might sleep excessively. Additionally, activities that once brought pleasure may no longer be enjoyable, leading to a withdrawal from hobbies and social interactions.

How does depression manifest differently in men compared to women?

Zhai: Depression can manifest differently in men compared to women, with men often exhibiting behaviors that may not be immediately recognized as symptoms of depression. These behaviors can include difficulties in getting along with others, such as conflicts with their spouse, partner or other family members. Men might engage in escapist behaviors, like spending excessive time at work or immersing themselves in sports, to avoid confronting their emotions. Problems with alcohol or drug use may arise as men attempt to self-medicate their emotional distress. Controlling, violent or abusive behavior can also be signs of underlying depression. Additionally, men may experience irritability or anger that is difficult to manage, as well as engaging in risky behaviors such as reckless driving.

What coping mechanisms do men typically use when dealing with depression?

Yusen Zhai, Ph.D., director of the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Community Counseling Clinic.

Zhai: Men and women cope with depression in different ways, with women generally more likely to seek help. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to turn to drugs and alcohol as a means of coping. Research shows that many of the coping strategies associated with traditional “masculine” behavior focus on unhelpful behaviors such as substance use, risk-taking, irritability and emotional withdrawal. Despite this, men also adopt adaptive coping strategies, such as seeking social support and engaging in physical activities. Recognizing these patterns is crucial for providing effective support and encouraging healthier coping mechanisms for men dealing with depression.

Why is male depression often underdiagnosed or untreated?

Zhai: Depression in men is frequently underdiagnosed and untreated due to several key factors. Societal stigma and cultural expectations discourage men from expressing vulnerability or seeking help, as doing so can be perceived as a sign of weakness. Men often lack awareness about the symptoms of depression, which can manifest differently than in women, leading them to attribute their feelings to stress or physical ailments instead. Reluctance to seek professional help is common, driven by fear of being judged or stigmatized. Additionally, traditional diagnostic criteria for depression may not fully capture the unique ways it presents in men, contributing to misdiagnosis or overlooking the condition altogether. Recognizing and addressing these barriers is essential to improving mental health outcomes for men.

What role does societal pressure play in men’s mental health?

Zhai: Societal pressure plays a crucial role in men’s mental health by reinforcing traditional masculine ideals that emphasize strength, stoicism and self-reliance. These expectations discourage men from expressing vulnerability or seeking help for mental health issues, fearing judgment or stigmatization. The pressure to succeed professionally and maintain a strong, unemotional façade can lead men to neglect their mental health and avoid discussing their feelings. Limited emotional expression, driven by cultural norms, makes it difficult for men to communicate their struggles and seek support. Addressing these societal pressures can be critical for creating an environment where men feel comfortable and supported in managing their mental health.

Recommendations for men to promote mental health

Zhai: Counseling with mental health professionals can equip men with effective coping skills to manage depression. This process involves recognizing and improving current coping strategies, learning to manage stress through techniques like meditation and mindfulness, and developing strong problem-solving skills. Cognitive adjustments help shift negative thought patterns to more positive ones, while identifying and moving toward personal values provides purpose and direction. Setting realistic goals and prioritizing tasks can reduce feelings of being overwhelmed. Building a support network by seeking emotional support from partners, family or friends, and engaging in social activities can provide a sense of community. Engaging in enjoyable activities, such as sports or hobbies, and maintaining a healthy routine, including balanced eating, regular physical activity and avoiding substances, are crucial for better mental health in men.