Traditional male gender roles can hinder good mental health
“Real men don’t cry.”
We’ve all heard this old stereotype tossed around, but is it true? Not so, says Paul Fornell, MS, LPCC, a mental health counselor with more than 30 years’ experience and an instructor in the University of Phoenix Master of Science in Counseling degree program.
“Our society teaches men not to express any kind of vulnerable emotions, such as sadness or fear, while encouraging them to show anger or aggressiveness instead,” Fornell explains. “These very old ideas of how men should act can contribute to a lot of mental health problems. On the top of the list would be substance abuse-related disorders, with alcohol abuse the most common. Mood disorders and depression also rank very high, along with anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. In short, characteristics that we expect men to exhibit — being tough, successful, upbeat, able to handle booze — can create significant problems for them.”
Many men struggle with their emotions as a result of these ingrained gender stereotypes, and also steer clear of seeking mental health services. “Men often like to feel that they’re in charge, and that can make it hard for them to seek counseling,” Fornell explains. “The need to have power and control over your own destiny is very much a traditional male value, yet it can get in the way when you’re struggling with mental health issues.”
In his own private counseling practice, Fornell often sees male clients who have waited until their lives have been turned upside down by unresolved mental health issues before they seek counseling. “Many men I see as clients don’t ask for help until some major personal crisis has disrupted their lives, such as a divorce, a job loss or even something like a DWI arrest that resulted in court-ordered counseling,” he says. “And even then it can be very hard for them to open up. But once they realize that the counseling relationship is a safe, supportive and private environment, they find it really helps them.”
Fornell speaks from personal experience. “In the 1970s, when I was first considering becoming a mental health counselor, I read a book called ‘The Hazards of Being Male: The Myth of Masculine Privilege,’” he explains. “That book profoundly changed my world view. It led me to seek counseling myself, which I think should be a requirement for anyone who wants to work in the mental health profession.”
In some ways, Fornell has found his friendships with women are also crucial to his mental health. “Women are socially conditioned to be more in touch with their feelings, and as such I’ve found that my female friends can be very emotionally supportive,” he says.
Some men who do find the courage to seek counseling find tremendous personal growth in the counselor-client relationship. “Oftentimes, it’s the first time men encounter someone who accepts them just for who they are, without judging,” says Fornell. “And men also tend to become more open with their emotions as they age.”
Good mental health is ultimately something for both sexes to embrace. “The bottom line is, male or female, we all have issues,” says Fornell. “We’re all human.”