07/10/2015 8:40 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:50 PM AEST

What A Piece Of Work Is A Man

The world has changed and so must our definition of what it is to be a man. The issue of masculinity is not a gender specific issue; it's one that has huge implications for both men and women.

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Happy mature male friends having beer while looking at barbecue in yard

A narrow and restricted definition of 'what it means to be a man' is currently presented and reinforced to men and boys by society. This has a direct and harmful impact on men's mental health and wellbeing.

Mental Health Week brings with it an opportunity to think and reflect on a number of issues relating to men and their mental health, including how best to educate around signs and symptoms, the work that needs to be done to reduce stigma and how we encourage men to take personal ownership of their own mental health and wellbeing.

The issue is society's perception and definition of masculinity.

We know that men tend to compare themselves against a masculine ideal which values power, strength, control and invincibility. This is something that is played out across multiple touch points in a man's life, from being told from an early age in the playground to 'be a man and don't cry' through to the stoic, tough heroes that are portrayed through Hollywood films. From a young age society teaches our boys they need to act tough, show strength and effectively be invincible.

Ironically, the popular notion of what it is to be a man today is unhealthy, and in some cases, can have a devastating effect on the mental health and well being of a man. As a society, we've attached ourselves to an impossibly outdated image of what a "real man" should look like. It's one that was born out of a time when men were the sole breadwinners, spent more time outside of the home than in, were the only ones to serve in the armed forces and hold political positions of power.

The world has changed and so must our definition of what it is to be a man. The issue of masculinity is not a gender specific issue; it's one that has huge implications for both men and women. It's an issue that in order to address in a meaningful way needs everyone to play a role -- this is not a problem for men, this is problem for us all and as such need to be addressed at an individual and societal level.

So why is this an important issue? It's important because when men believe they are not meeting the standard set for them by society, they can feel a sense of shame and defeat. We know that men are often more reluctant than women to talk about emotions and discuss the impact of significant life events, such as relationship breakdowns, loss of job and becoming a father. And one of the reasons for this is because the masculine ideal requires that men should never be depressed, anxious or unable to cope and, if they are, they shouldn't admit it. So the very experience of being distressed or having a mental health problem can be psychologically difficult for men because they are not supposed to be vulnerable in this way.

Psychological research suggests that adherence to these traditional masculine ideals is an important predictor of suicide attempts with the reluctance to discuss the impact of significant life events, being a particular predictor. Research shows that suicide can become a valid, possibly rational, option for men when circumstances determine that coping alone and keeping control of a situation seems no longer possible; that is, it becomes the ultimate way of exerting control thereby demonstrating to oneself, and others, a 'male self'.

With one man dying by suicide every minute around the world, it's easy to make the argument as to why it's so important that we start having the conversation around masculinity. The hard part is engaging society in these conversations in a meaningful way and getting individuals to look inward at the views they hold. Like many things in life, in may not be until you're challenged that you realise that you are in some way, albeit inadvertently, contributing to the issue. Potentially holding on to an outdated view of masculinity that is shaping your actions and views.

There's much more to being a man than the masculine ideal of a strong, tough type and far better ways of coping with the obstacles life throws at us. And it's not just up to men -- women have a key role to play here too. We need to get the message out there so that blokes aren't punished for not living up to the traditional masculine ideal. This means encouraging emotional intelligence in future generations and leading by example by not bottling up our emotions and instead recognising the importance of having strong support networks when those moments in life challenge and test us.

It's not going to be easy and it's going to take time. It'll require us all to challenge and change the way we teach boys about masculinity and may also involve changing how we each contribute to what we think it means to 'be a man'.

But the benefits that will come from this shift in attitude will be life-changing and lead to men who are emotionally aware and take action when it comes to their physical and mental health.

That's a moment in time we can all look forward to. And, I'd like to use this opportunity to encourage everyone to begin to think about their views on masculinity.

Let's begin the conversation.


Adam Garone is CEO of the Movember Foundation.

If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 131114. For further information about depression, contact beyond blue on 1300224636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.