The Men’s Mental Health Double-Bind

Two contradictory yet insistent messages can damage men’s mental health.

Posted Jun 10, 2019

This week is "Men’s Health Week," an annual event initiated by Senator Bob Dole to bring attention to the oft-ignored issues surrounding men’s health. One of these overlooked issues is men’s mental health, which remains a major concern to health advocates worldwide.

One issue that demands urgent discussion is what I call the "men’s mental health double-bind."

Double-Bind

A double-bind refers to a simple psychological concept, whereby an individual or group regularly receives two contradictory yet insistent messages, with each message negating the other. An example of a double-bind is a parent constantly telling a child, "you should show me more physical affection," but then reacting negatively when the child attempts any physical contact.

Double-binds are logically impossible to resolve. As such, they can be emotionally distressing and cognitively confusing for those on the receiving end. In short, some research shows that double-binds can have a damaging effect on the mental health of vulnerable people.

"Men, Please Talk More"

Men experience elevated rates of numerous mental health issues including suicide and substance use disorder while showing low rates of mental health service utilization and a tendency to bottle-up. This has led many scholars to posit a silent crisis of men’s mental health.

Consequently, many mental health organizations and high-profile individuals are sending out an insistent message that men must talk more about their mental health. Even royalty has endorsed this message, with HRH Prince William stating in a recent documentary that we need to "pass the message onto men everywhere that it’s okay to talk about mental health…and be able to talk about our emotions."

Fine words indeed.

"Men, Please Shut Up"

However, other individuals and organizations are sending out a completely different message, namely that men as a group need to remain silent and "check their privilege." As wryly noted by Bloomberg journalist Ramesh Ponnuru "check your privilege means shut your mouth."

Such messages can be seen all over the Internet, with pleas for men to shut-up or stop whining. Of note, these pleas come from both men and women. These echo comments men often hear in face-to-face interactions, even from their intimates and their employers. 

Indeed, such perspectives can emanate from high places, including the U.S. Senate, with Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono recently stating, "I just want to say to the men in this country: just shut up and step up. Do the right thing for a change." For some, male silence is a sign of moral rectitude.

This situation creates a men’s mental health double-bind. On the one hand, men are being told to talk more and open-up; on the other hand, men are being told to check their privilege and be silent. This can only create cognitive and emotional distress. 

Interestingly, the men's mental health double-bind manifests itself beyond the borders of the U.S. As such, examples from the U.K and Canada are given below to illustrate its global nature.

Men’s Issues Groups

Numerous groups have attempted to organize discussions about issues affecting men’s mental health. These are sometimes met with hostility.

For example, a group of male and female students at Ryerson University created a men’s issues group, holding events to discuss men's mental health. This group was refused official status by Ryerson University’s Student Union on numerous occasions, with members being stigmatized and abused by some campus activists, as seen in the CBC TV report below.

Likewise, other groups have invited well-known mental health scholars as guest speakers, with unforeseen consequences. For example, the University of Toronto Men's Issues Society invited Dr. Warren Farrell to talk about men’s mental health issues, but his lecture was met with violence and vandalism by protesters who tried to shut down the event.

The wider social message may be encouraging men to talk more, but men are often facing local situations where they are being implicitly told to shut-up, check their privilege and talk less. This double-bind may be especially present on university campuses.

British Psychological Society Male Psychology Group

Several British psychologists recently formed a male psychology group offering public lectures, a website, a newsletter, and a social space to discuss men’s mental health issues (full disclosure: I am a member).

As the group grew, the leadership applied for the group to be recognized as an official section of the British Psychological Society (BPS). This would require a vote from the whole BPS membership.

Bizarrely, this was opposed by an organized group entitled "No  to Male Psychology," which campaigned for a no vote. In the resultant ballot, over 4,000 BPS members voted, with two-thirds in favour of the new section. This was welcome news, but it cannot go unnoticed that 30 percent of BPS members who voted did not want a male psychology section.

Undaunted, the newly recognized BPS Male Psychology Section is going from strength to strength, and later this month will be holding a Men’s Mental Health conference in London. Keynote speakers include Jackie Doyle-Price, the UK Minister of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention, as well as Member (elect) of the European Parliament, Martin Daubney.

Thankfully, there are still some influential people who are willing to walk the talk when it comes to men’s mental health issues.

The Way Ahead

In a free society, everybody has the right to possess and express opinions about men’s mental health, even if such opinions are stigmatizing.

That said, health advocates must note that men’s mental health double-bind has nefarious consequences for vulnerable men in need of support.

Simply telling men to talk more will have a limited impact while significant voices are telling men to talk less and check their privilege. This double-bind needs to be recognized as a social determinant of men’s mental health.

Indeed, addressing this double-bind should be considered a mental health promotion strategy. As such, health advocates must engage in robust debate with those who discourage men from talking. 

Otherwise, the well-meaning exhortations from HRH Prince William and others for men to talk about their mental health become empty platitudes.

We can not have it both ways.