The Era of “Mad” Men: How Sexism Stigmatizes Men’s Mental Health

Silvia Sala
Silvia Sala

By Megan Dottermusch

The stereotype can be traced back through the ages — in biblical stories, fables, and Shakespearean masterpieces, women are ruled by mercurial emotions, and men are the stoic defenders of rational thought and logic. Feminists across the country have spent decades trying to prove that negative biases against “irrational” women are rooted in antiquated gender roles defined by old-school “academics.” Modern feminists acknowledge that sexism doesn’t just harm women by typecasting them as weak, emotionless creatures; it harms men as well by defining them as apathetic beings who should favor appearing emotionless over appearing emotional.

Women suffer from being dismissed as wildly sensitive, but at least such an overt and blatant stereotype pushes women’s mental health issues into the foreground — they are more commonly accepted and portrayed in the media (often ham-handedly, but at least they exist). From manic pixie dream girls like Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted to Kate Winslet’s Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, “unstable” women are all over the place (literally and figuratively).

On the opposite side of the spectrum, stereotypes regarding male stoicism and rationality shove valid mental health issues under the proverbial rug. In the rare instances that mental illness is portrayed by a male character in modern media, it is rarely defined as a mental illness — far too often it’s chalked up to heteronormative male behavior. Typical warning signs are shrugged off as byproducts of masculinity. Mentally ill characters are portrayed as eerily detached or sociopathic (much like the antagonists in Fight Club and American Psycho) or testosterone-fueled rageaholics like Tuco from Breaking Bad.

When not “living on the edge,” most male characters follow the “ruled by the head” mentality, often appearing cold and analytical in stark contrast to their wildly emotional female counterparts (see Walter and Skylar White in Breaking Bad, or Ned and Catelyn Stark in Game of Thrones).

Juxtaposing detached, analytical male characters and passionate, irrational female characters is harmful to both genders. In a world where everything is immediately consumable, pop culture rules all, and social media spoils television shows, what we see on-screen can have a lasting effect on our cultural psyche. And when mental illness is consistently misrepresented and dangerously misunderstood, gender roles only perpetuate the problem. Nearly one in four people in the world, men and women, will suffer from mental illness at some point in their lives, and it’s about time we came to terms with that.

When I think about the men around me I’ve known who struggle with mental illness, the idea that society considers their struggles illegitimate is enraging. When I was in college, my father was laid off from his job. The stress of losing what he thought was a permanent position coupled with the subsequent financial woes sent him into a depression that he has battled ever since. I’ve watched him struggle with this disease and seek the necessary treatment in an attempt to defeat it, and I am infinitely proud to be his daughter.

His story is one that rings true for millions of men across the globe, many of whom will spend their lives untreated and unhappy because of some inane, backwards Western logic. My father is a prime example of the struggles men face daily, and how crucial it is that they seek help instead of denying their emotions.

According to Psychology of Men, misunderstanding mental illness and perpetuating gender stereotypes — such as how men must be hyper-masculine, aloof, and strong while women are deemed the nurturing, emotional, sensitive caretakers — is dangerous and can lead men to:

  1. Restrict emotions
  2. Avoid being feminine (e.g., vulnerable, passive, emotional)
  3. Focus on toughness and aggression
  4. Be self-reliant
  5. Make achievement the top priority
  6. Be non-relational
  7. Objectify sex
  8. Be homophobic

The “macho man” image perpetuated by the American media and familial ideologies also causes harm: Sensitivity, sadness, pain, and even sickness are all deemed “feminine.” Young boys are chastised for crying, and men who are more in touch with their emotions often have homophobic slurs hurled at their heads …

How can men feel comfortable discussing their mental well-being if society has deemed their everyday emotions invalid or weak? If they can’t even express themselves, how can they identify problematic emotional behaviors? The frequent and harsh dismissal of legitimate mental health disorders makes it incredibly unlikely for men to pursue a diagnosis, let alone seek treatment.

The Movember Foundation highlights just how prevalent men’s mental health issues are, and how crucial it is to spread awareness. More than four times as many men as women die by suicide in the United States three-quarters of the tens of thousands of people who die yearly by suicide are men. Men suffer from the exact same mental health problems as women, from eating and bipolar disorders to crippling anxiety and schizophrenia.

There are campaigns dedicated to spreading awareness regarding mental illness in men, many of which popped up last May during Mental Health Awareness Week. For example, “Switch on the Light” is a campaign created by the Self-Esteem Team that encourages men to talk about their feelings. Prominent male public figures such as Stephen Fry and Ian Royce told their biggest fears in a YouTube video with female voices layered over the start of their confessions, before they are stripped away to reveal it is men voicing such insecurities. The idea is that “emotions have no gender,” and that men can suffer from the same mental health disorders as women.

This video is important for a few reasons. First, people often hold the opinions of public figures in higher regard. Not only are Fry and Royce discussing the importance of validating male emotion, but they are also exposing their deepest fears and using themselves as an example. Also, videos are shareable and easily posted on social media, allowing “Switch on the Light” to be incredibly accessible to the general population.

More and more campaigns and social media movements are working to erase gender boundaries and promote a healthy mind for men and women alike. New York Presbyterian Hospital released an article entitled “Maintaining Good Health: A Guide for Men” in the beginning of June. The tips include maintaining a healthy lifestyle (exercising can often pull the mind away from dark or obsessive thoughts) and staying away from illicit substances and consuming alcohol in excess (I know from experience that alcohol will only exacerbate the emotions of a person suffering from anxiety or depression). The article also implores men to remember that they are not alone, and that seeking help is not a sign of weakness.

Society’s perpetual subscription to gender roles detrimentally affects our society, and will have an impact on generations to come if we do not challenge it. It harms men and women alike in myriad ways. Feminist movements seek to eradicate these roles and allow men and women to enjoy equality in every aspect of life, whether it is fighting for equal pay or equal opportunities to diagnose and treat mental health issues.

Remember, emotions have no gender.

Megan Dottermusch is the community manager for Counseling@Northwestern, the masters in counseling program offered by The Family Institute at Northwestern online. She is a wellness advocate, motivating others to incorporate fitness, proper nutrition, and mindfulness into everyday life. She attended the University of Maryland and served as risk manager on her sorority’s executive board, acting as a confidante for members seeking help for personal and emotional issues. She hopes starting a dialogue around mental health will address the misconceptions and end the stigmas associated with mental illness.