By Jocelyn Wright
Men who see themselves as playboys, and as having power over women, are more prone to poor mental health than those who conform less to traditionally masculine norms, according to a new study.
The study, published in the Journal of Counseling Psychology, also showed men who conform to masculine norms are less likely to seek help for psychological issues.
Researchers from Indiana University conducted a meta-analysis, which combines data from previously published studies to identify consistencies. They analysed around 80 papers with a total of 19,453 participants. The papers focused on the relationship between mental health and conformity to traditional male gender norms.
Traditional gender norms are a socially-constructed set of ideas that tell men and women how to behave.
The studies included in the meta-analysis used scales that rely on 11 dimensions of masculine norms.
The 11 dimensions are: winning, emotional control, risk-taking, violence, dominance, pursuit of playboy behaviour, self-reliance, primacy of work, power over women, disdain for homosexuals and pursuit of status.
The studies measured which of these were associated with positive or negative mental health and psychological help seeking.
Nine of the dimensions were significantly associated with worse mental health, in areas such as depression, anxiety and social well-being.
Researchers found self-reliance, pursuit of playboy behaviour and power over women were traits consistently associated with worse mental health.
Some Australian researchers not involved in the study have cautioned it adopts an outdated and simplified approach to gender norms that fails to address the complexities of masculinity – particularly experiences of men of diverse sexual orientations, cultural or ethnic backgrounds.
“It’s an idea and view of examining men and men’s lives that I think is problematic for a lot of reasons,” said Dr Jo River, a researcher in men’s health and suicide prevention from the University of Sydney.
“The key thing is that men’s attitudes towards ideals of masculinity don’t tell us about the power relationships among men and masculinities, and how this impacts on the mental health outcomes for some men, in particular how men from diverse backgrounds are impacted by those men who choose to embody these dominant ideals of masculinity.”
Meanwhile, Raewyn Connell, professor in social sciences and masculinity from the University of Sydney, said it would be unwise to draw practical conclusions from the research, as correlation does not mean causation.
“The statistical technique of meta-analysis has value for some purposes, but always adds further difficulties of interpretation. To think this report could tell us anything clear and substantial about men in general is a major stretch,” said Professor Connell.
“The scales of masculinity, supposed to be precise measures of conformity to masculine norms, are based on a very simplified, indeed outdated, concept of role norms.”
“When quantitative studies have solid information about what people actually do, they are more valuable. Actually talking to men about their help-seeking behaviour can be very informative. But in this report, even this behaviour is treated at an extreme level of abstraction,” she said.
However, Associate Professor in Sociology from the University of Wollongong, Michael Flood, said many studies that followed men over a long period of time found those with a stronger endorsement of masculinity tended to take greater risks with their health and show poorer, overall health behaviours than other men.
“We know that key elements of traditional masculinity – such as stoicism, self-reliance and dominance – shape men’s health,” said Associate Professor Flood.
“There’s consistent evidence that when men take on those traits and emphasise those traits in themselves, they show poorer mental health and are also less likely to seek help when their physical and emotional health is poor.”
Associate Professor Flood added not all traits of traditional masculinity had a negative influence on men’s health. He said an emphasis on fitness and exercise was often a positive and protective outcome for men who endorsed these traits.
“What this study tells us, yet again, is that we need social and cultural solutions to men’s health and that we have to address the broader constructions of manhood that shape men’s lives.”