The Man Box and the Men’s Mental Health Crisis

I’ve witnessed this scene play out hundreds of times. A man – let’s call him Jake – appears to be struggling, isolated or upset. Jake’s co-worker Damon approaches him, senses something might be off and asks, “You good?” Jake looks up, straightens up and quickly replies, “I’m good.”

The question is as problematic as the answer, yet this experience is so universal that it transcends age, socioeconomic status and ethnicity. It permeates the male experience.  Starting as early as elementary school, boys who are faced with disappointment – a bad grade, a loss, a confrontation at school – are asked by a friend, parent or teacher, “What’s up?” The most common answer: “Nothing, I’m cool.”

Men and boys don’t ask for, offer or accept help. It’s a direct result of our collective socialization – what we at A Call To Men call the Man Box. The Man Box teaches men to always act like we have everything under control. To never ask for help. We casually joke about how men my age could never ask for directions. GPS technology available through smart phones saved guys like me and a younger generation from evolving on asking for directions.  But asking for help is much more critical than asking for directions, and there’s no GPS to save us there. We have to do the work.

Research from Harvard and Rutgers shows that men who report having traditional views of masculinity are less likely to get consistent health care. They believe they should be strong and self-reliant and as a result, they resist routine exams. More than 40 percent of men don’t go to the doctor at all unless they have a serious health issue.  And when they do go to the doctor, men are less likely to be honest with their doctor about their health history and current symptoms. This is a core reason why the average life expectancy of men is five years shorter than it is for women.

More than 6 million men suffer from depression each year, but male depression often goes undiagnosed. Men are more likely to say they are tired, stressed, or bored than to admit to feelings of sadness and worthlessness. Male suicide has been on the rise since 2000 and 3.5 times as many men die from suicide than women.  Those numbers continue to rise when you look at men facing multiple forms of oppression. Gay and bisexual men are more likely to develop mental health disorders and gay males are at an increased risk for suicide, especially before age 25.

The problem is clear but so is the solution. Prevention education, awareness and culture change will create a world where men can be their authentic selves, where they aren’t held hostage by the Man Box. Healthy manhood is the solution and it’s going to take millions of us making the change in ourselves and our communities to make it happen.

At A Call To Men, we work to model healthy manhood and we’re invested in a “train the trainers” strategy to reach coaches, teachers, parents, business and political leaders and others who have the platform to influence communities. This year, we’ve been lucky to partner with the incredible team at Harry’s to work with 5,000 college athletes on how aspects of male socialization increase their risk for mental health issues. It mirrors work we’ve been doing with the professional sports leagues for years.

Through in-person education and training opportunities, A Call To Men will reach more than 100,000 men and boys this year with a message of healthy manhood. But this sea change doesn’t happen unless millions of us are living it every day. Are you with me?

I’m inviting you to make the commitment today to use your platform to improve the state of men’s mental health. Start by living the principles of healthy manhood. Talk to other men and boys in your life. Please don’t feel like you have to have all the answers – that’s another Man Box trap. You can just listen and if needed, offer resources like a local counselor, Crisis Text Line, the Trevor Project or the National Suicide Lifeline. Healthy manhood is the solution. You are the solution.