Staying Silent: The Stigma of Male Mental Health 

As we celebrate International Men’s Day, we take a look at how traditional views of masculinity can lead to unhealthy behaviours, and consider some healthy practices for men to achieve mental wellbeing.

A silent health crisis—that’s one way of describing men’s mental health issues in our society today. Due to traditional Asian culture and gender norms, men are expected to be strong and independent, not showing any signs of weakness—otherwise known as toxic masculinity, which could unknowingly be harmful to men. Unfortunately, some men don’t know how to navigate such expectations. In 2020, Samaritans of Singapore reported that men made up more than 70% of all suicides. One contributing factor is that men are less likely to ask for professional help than women; with less support, feeling overwhelmed, and feeling like they’re letting their families down, they may feel ashamed and escape through suicide.

On 19 November, we celebrate International Men’s Day to honour men in our families and community as well as shed light on male mental well-being. It’s also a time to reflect on the gender norms that have contributed to unhealthy expectations and behaviours in men that might silently affect their mental health. We take a look at some of the problems Singaporean men face and give some tips on achieving mental wellness.

Roles of the modern working man

Across cultures, men are expected to provide financially for their family, which often means pursuing a stable career. Traditionally, women have been relied upon for childcare, but that has changed over the years, and parental responsibilities are increasingly shared with fathers. In Singapore, fathers are given two weeks of paid paternity leave, while mothers get up to 16 weeks. While paid leave does lighten the load, men may still find it difficult to balance parenting with work. Some workplace cultures may not value the importance of parenting, let alone give men the opportunity to take care of their kids. Men are stretched between their families and career—each expecting them to be fully present. 

In addition, men might find parenting challenging especially if they didn't have a good role model to follow. In Singapore, the image of a stoic dad who disciplines his kids is a common one. Many baby boomer fathers may struggle with parenting well because they might not have been parented healthily themselves. Modern dads have the difficult job of teaching themselves to relate well with their children—especially their sons—and parent in a healthy way even if they didn’t experience that themselves.

Unhealthy expectations and stigmas

Influenced by cultures and traditions, men are often expected to be strong all the time. From young, boys are trained to “man up”, and any sign of emotion or weakness is frowned upon—even amongst men, and therein lies a deeper issue.

Researchers have defined toxic masculinity as:

  • Suppressing emotions or masking distress
  • Maintaining an appearance of hardness
  • Violence as an indicator of power (“macho man” behaviour)

Ideas of masculinity—that are essentially harmful to everyone—are being inculcated by men themselves. While not every male is like that, many grow up learning such behaviour to avoid being “feminine”.

Another issue that many men face but isn’t often discussed is body dysmorphia. We tend to think that only women struggle with physical appearance because of societal standards, but men can be dissatisfied with their bodies as well because of how men are portrayed in media. Being short, underweight or overweight, or having hair loss affects men’s perceptions of themselves, and consequently, their mental health.

Signs of poor mental health

The pressures that men face can be summed up by society’s expectation of them to perform and be on top of their game at all times. While a small amount of this can be motivating, it is often too demanding and unrealistic for men to handle constantly. This may lead to psychological, physical, and emotional toll that affects their mental health.

Both men and women experience stress, but how it exhibits may look different. Men are more likely to engage in activities such as drinking, smoking, and gambling to de-stress . Additionally, without an output for this stress, many develop anger issues and may turn violent too. On the flip side of rage, men may internalise the pressures of their workload and family responsibilities and sink deeper into isolation, especially if they don’t have a community of support. Isolation is detrimental in the long-term and can lead to depression.

Achieving mental wellness

On that note, what are some healthy practices for men to keep mentally and physically fit between work and family life? We spoke to Joey Koh, a tenant working at one of CapitaLand’s Workspace properties, who also teaches yoga at Fitness First.

In part from societal expectations, men place a high level of pressure on themselves to perform and be the best all the time. But the reality is that everyone falls short. For Joey, self-awareness is a start to managing unrealistic expectations. “I appreciate that, at times, not achieving something isn’t from the lack of trying but simply due to other physical or mental attributes. My yoga journey has taught me to be less critical of my shortcomings and to relate to the struggles that others may be facing,” says Joey.  No one is perfect and when men realise that it’s alright to fail sometimes, that eases the pressure.  

Perhaps from the lack of nurturing since young, men may be less attuned towards and understanding of their own emotions. Whether the feelings are positive or negative, men find it harder, and perhaps more embarrassing, to express their emotions with others.  

Working out is a great way of channeling negative emotions and stress out of our bodies. “Yoga could be a means to heighten your body and muscular awareness and engagement to maximise your workouts,” says Joey. Engaging in an intensive workout is a simple step in de-stressing.

Another benefit of exercise is that it allows us to understand our own bodies. “I took up yoga teacher training because I wanted to refine my poses and learn more about which muscle groups to engage more of. By understanding our mental and physical composition, we’re more able to get into certain poses,” Joey adds. Learning new movements and pushing ourselves teaches us to listen to our body, allowing men to be more conscious of the physical, mental, and emotional warning signs of becoming overwhelmed.

Aside from exercising, having a network of family and friends to turn to for support is very important in maintaining overall wellbeing in our hectic lives. While some men may have wives and siblings to lean on, having a close group of friends where everyone can be open about their struggles is useful in building each other up.

Perhaps most importantly, what’s needed is to adjust society’s unhealthy expectations of masculinity to a version that is healthy and empowering for men. Speaking up about it with friends and asking for professional help are a couple of first steps in creating awareness of the silent struggles of men and normalising help-seeking behaviour. If more of us—both men and women—recognise the need to challenge the negative traits of the male stereotype, we’ll encourage healthy personalities and behaviours in men.

Is there anyone in your family, workplace or circle of friends that you know may be facing difficulties but is keeping silent? Reach out to them and see how they’re doing. It might be good as well to reconsider the male role model and promote healthy masculinity. 

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