You may have heard in recent news articles about the crisis of boys and men. There are data from various fields that boys and men are facing a mental health crisis that has gone unaddressed for decades¹. This shows up in increased suicide rates for men, violence amongst men, and lower academic performance and proficiency by boys in educational settings². As research on boys’ and men’s mental health has increased, and the stigma to speak out about mental health concerns has decreased, we are becoming more aware that boys and men haven’t been getting the help they need. I want to illustrate some of the common mental health concerns faced by boys and men, and how counseling can help boys and men achieve better overall wellness.
For years, psychological research has focused largely on studying boys and men (rather than girls and women) as the human standard for mental health. Consequently, psychology and counseling research has historically neglected the unique experiences and needs of girls and women, and a growing research base seeks to fill these gaps. A less obvious consequence of deeming boys and men the human standard is that research has also ignored the unique gendered experiences of boys and men regarding how our society socializes and creates expectations regarding certain standards of behavior. But, this is changing.
In 2018, the American Psychological Association released its first Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men³. These guidelines compiled the recent research into the lives of boys and men and uncovered a concerning finding. Rigid gender roles and societal expectations of boys and men are primary drivers of detrimental developmental, social, and mental health outcomes. You may have heard the term toxic masculinity, describing some of the damaging and unhealthy behaviors men might engage in to prove their manhood. In psychology, we call this hegemonic masculinity. In the United States, there are prevailing cultural expectations our society puts on men to be excessively dominating, aggressive, competitive, and emotionally stoic⁴. Our society has come to expect these traits from boys and men to such a degree that trying to adhere to these standards often leaves boys and men with difficulty developing meaningful relationships, or expressing and embracing other aspects of themselves that they need to function because these traits might be outside of this man box.
Even if boys don’t receive hegemonic masculine messages from their families, they are undoubtedly receiving these messages from their peers and media representations of masculinity, which can be much more influential during the adolescent stage of development when boys are crafting their social identity⁴. There is a myth that boys and men are less emotional than girls and women, when boys and men experience the same range of emotional experiences as anyone else. Instead, our socialization of boys causes them to suppress and hide these emotions from others. Sometimes this also inhibits boys and men from having a language to understand their own emotions, leading to even more confusion and struggle¹.
For these reasons, one of the best things men can do for themselves, or parents can do for their boys, is to create space to explore and untangle themselves from the unhealthy messaging and expectations they’ve received about the rigid line they must walk to be a real man. The truth is, the way that we socialize boys and men asks them to cut off critical aspects of themselves in favor of expressing and behaving in rigid and harmful ways. As a part of his doctoral work, Dr. Miller spent extensive time researching and understanding the negative impact of gender role conflict on the mental health of boys and men. Gender role conflict is when individuals devalue or restrict themselves or others to adhere to rigid gender roles prescribed by society¹. This can lead to shame and low self-esteem, feeling like they’re not man enough. Due to restriction of self-expression that results in shallow, unfulfilling friendships and relationships, loneliness is another common concern for boys and men. Depression, rage, and substance abuse can also be common for men as they try to contend with their emotions all on their own to refrain from seeming weak.
Dr. Miller approaches issues of gender role conflict from a Relational-Cultural perspective. This means that Dr. Miller works with clients to develop an understanding of how societal expectations may impact a client’s behavior and feelings about themselves. Every individual boy and man has a different relationship with masculinity that can be influenced by his race, ethnicity, culture, and sexuality; and exploration and clarification of how these factors have influenced boys’ and men’s feelings about themselves and their relationships can be helpful in beginning to address mental health concerns. Research shows that having a broad and flexible definition of masculinity can help alleviate mental health concerns for boys and men³, and although society’s shift in gender norms may take some time, boys and men can begin to develop their own definitions of masculinity through therapeutic work. Such boys and men can be a part of the solution for broadening society’s definitions of masculinity by beginning to model broader, more healthy versions of masculinity. Dr. Miller works with clients to begin the process of bringing their personal authenticity back into their relationships so that boys and men can develop the mutual-growth fostering relationships that are important for positive mental health and development. In doing so, boys and men can develop mindful awareness of the ways societal messages might be limiting them and work to achieve their mental health and wellness goals.
O’Neil, J. M. (2008). Summarizing 25 years of research on men’s gender role conflict using the Gender Role Conflict Scale: New research paradigms and clinical implications. The counseling psychologist, 36(3), 358-445.
- Farrell, W., & Gray, J. (2018). The boy crisis: Why our boys are struggling and what we can do about it. BenBella Books.
- American Psychological Association, Boys and Men Guidelines Group. (2018). APA guidelines for psychological practice with boys and men. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/about/policy/psychological-practice-boys-men-guidelines.pdf
- Levant, R. F., Wong, Y. J., & American Psychological Association (Eds.). (2017). The psychology of men and masculinities. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.