The Toxic Relationship between Young Men and Mental Health in Australia and New Zealand
Credit Unsplash

Trigger Warning – The following article contains a discussion of depression and suicide.

Harry Styles’ Vogue cover for December 2020 took the world by storm. He became the first man to be featured on Vogue’s front cover, as he posed in skirts and dresses for the global magazine.  Styles’ attitude to breaking down gender barriers and the typical ‘men must be tough’ stigma that is thrown around western society has taken the world by awe and admiration. “I find myself looking at women’s clothes, thinking they’re amazing,” stated Styles with Vogue. While Styles is incredibly open both emotionally and socially, this is not the case for a large proportion of men throughout the world.

This is particularly prevalent in Australasian countries, where rates of mental health issues as a result of a toxic masculinity culture are at an all-time high in young men. One of the major contributors to this toxicity includes a culture that perceives men as tough, with no tolerance for emotion and a mentality that presumes that men will act aggressively either verbally or physically.

This toxic masculinity and the rejection from traits that come across more feminine often leads to a destruction of the self-esteem and tolerance of emotion within young men.

Expectations of Young Men in Australia and New Zealand

Every day, whether it be at school, work or in the wider community, men are told to act and speak up in a certain way. Upon asking a group of young men from Australia and New Zealand between the ages of 15-18, it became rather apparent that on a daily basis, young men are told to act and speak more ‘manly’ as they are instructed to disguise any feminine characteristics, such as being emotional. These expectations are often forced upon young men from schools, communities or family members. One boy from Perth, Western Australia stated that “Throughout my entire life, I’ve been told that I needed to act more ‘like a man’ and to stop acting ‘girly’ just for doing the things I enjoy. It would usually come from my friends and family…I can actually remember all the way back to people telling me I shouldn’t buy certain toys because they weren’t ‘for boys’ which caused a lot of confusion for me growing up and led me trying to be someone I wasn’t.”

In addition to this, it became apparent that school values and rules often came into effect in the way young men were expected to act. Many boys inferred that school rules surrounding hair, piercings and uniforms suppressed them and their identity. One boy pointed out that at his school, girls were able to wear shorts or skirts, yet the boys were only able to wear shorts and that the idea of boys wearing dresses was deemed as ‘socially inappropriate.’

Not only are boys suppressed physically in these environments, but emotionally too. Almost every boy surveyed stated that they felt a need to keep their emotions in at school, and felt a need to act ‘tough’ and ‘strong’ at all times. One boy from Christchurch, New Zealand noting “[At school] I feel as though I have to act emotionally stable if I were to cry I would be judged. I would feel weak, and pathetic.” Additionally, another boy from Western Australia said that “There’s a stigma that guys don’t show emotions which makes it hard to open up when you are feeling stressed or anxious…I almost find it uncomfortable to talk to others about my feelings.”

The Effect of these Expectations on Young Men

These stereotypes and ‘expectations’ of young men often lead to extremely serious consequences, involving a rise of mental health issues within young men. The correlation of these mental health issues and toxic expectations is rather strong, as suggested by a variety of statistics across Australia and New Zealand.

In 2013, the world youth suicide rate average was 6.1% – yet New Zealand had the highest of 15.6%, according to UNICEF.

In New Zealand, young men are 2.5 times more likely to commit suicide than young woman, according to the New Zealand Ministry of Health.  In an article released by Stuff NZ, it was revealed that in the past decade, the number of kiwi’s committing suicides has risen by 29%, and the number of men who committed suicide was 68% compared to the 32% who were women. These results may be a result of the lack of comfort for men to discuss their feelings with others, a consequence of the unrealistic expectation that men must remain ‘tough’ and express little emotion. An article released by BBC in 2017 further discussed, after New Zealand topped the world with the highest youth suicide rates for that year. The article included an interview with Dr Prudence Stone of UNICEF New Zealand, who stated “There is a tradition of the hardened-up mate culture within New Zealand…It puts pressure on men to be of a particular mould, pressure on boys to harden up to become these tough beer-drinking hard men. “

In Australia, the problem is similar. According to the Australian Men’s Health Forum (AMFH), 4 out 5 suicides (80.3%) of suicides in 2017 were men. In addition to this, according to psychological service Beyond Blue, six out of 8 suicide attempts daily in Australia are men. This evidence acknowledges the outstanding relationship between the toxic masculine culture present within these countries and mental health issues, topped by the shocking suicide rate that has evidently ruined the lives of many young men and their families.

How can we overcome these expectations and stereotypes?

When asking the same group of young men earlier the expectations and stereotypes they felt they needed to live up to, I asked them how we could overcome these stereotypes. “Awareness is key…” one boy said, “we need to be educating more people about breaking the gender role barrier.” Another interviewee stated “I want to see men talking about their emotions. At the moment so many don’t because of fear that the boys will think they’re weak or girly for not holding it in.” Another point raised included the effects of social media on toxic masculinity. “I want the recent social media views such as ‘simping’ being ‘extra’ or a ‘try hard’ to dissipate for the men who truly do care or are gentlemen…I want people to realise that treating people with kindness and love does not make men ‘weak’ or ‘soft’.”

When asking these boys whether their schools, a range of public and private, had good and supportive programs for mental wellbeing, the results were mixed. The majority (66.6%) enforced that their schools had good programs to support young men and their troubles, but many mentioned that their school programs didn’t work for them personally. “Mental health is a very individual thing…in my case the programs weren’t helpful because I wasn’t able to relate to them, [the programs] mainly talked about school pressures while I felt pressured in other areas of my life.” Many school psychologists are also female, another young man pointed out, and many young men prefer to discuss and confide with another man rather than a woman suggesting more men psychologists could result in young men discussing their feelings and emotions more openly.

Organisations such as NZ Rugby recognize the relationship between mental health and young men through their campaign, HeadFirst. Headfirst provides self-tests for anxiety and depression along with ways to help other young men and women as a coach, a mate or as a parent. It provides solutions and assistance for those struggling with mental health issues as well as feelings of anger, loss and cultural identity. Not only this but HeadFirst provides ways to maintain mentally fit, to prevent young people from suffering with mental health problems. The campaign was created to “help players, coaches, support staff and families in the rugby community to support their own wellbeing and that of others.”

‘Being Men’

75% of the 15-18 year old boys interviewed across Australia and New Zealand inferred that they feel more comfortable discussing their feelings when they see other men around them also discussing their emotions openly. ‘Being Men’ is a series by NZ Rugby and Sarah Grohnert that is aimed at boys and men such as the ones interviewed, to allow them to feel more comfortable opening up about their emotions by discussing them on camera. 

In the words of Grohnert, Being Men is “an interview series with famous NZ rugby players and everyday men who speak with deep courage and open hearts about their most personal emotional challenges.” In an interview with Grohnert she opens up about the inspiration behind the series. “For a long time, it’s made me think a lot about the role of society and culture in shaping some kind of code of acceptable expression that we apply to boys and men. I guess for most men it’s true that they just don’t talk about their emotions much. However, that doesn’t mean that men don’t have the same complicated emotions as everyone else, it’s just that they have less practice in expressing them….. I gave myself the challenge to create conversations that are led by men and that should feel as honest and intimate as possible. I think I instinctively felt that if the definition of masculinity was to grow in scope and acceptance in our society, then that cultural shift has to come from men themselves and how they relate to each other and accept each other for expressing themselves more openly. It’s got to be an inside-out thing, it starts with one man, a handful of guys, a community of men. The more normalized conversations like the ones in the Being Men series become, the better for everyone.”

Grohnert also elaborates on the eye-opening experience of the series, especially the openness and bravery of the men who are interviewed, some of which are in the public eye. “The whole experience of filming and engaging with each of the men in deep conversation has been totally rewarding. I was just blown away by the level of thoughtfulness, vulnerability and self-reflection these guys brought… When someone shares themselves so deeply, that’s a gift. It was incredibly selfless too.” Throughout the series, the men interviewed show stories that bring both tears of sadness and joy, including some professional rugby players, who are known for their toughness and grit on the playing field.  “Some of the men we interviewed are active All Black Rugby players, and everyone knew that these films were made with the intention to go public, where their family, friends and complete strangers were going to see them wear their heart on their sleeves.”

In the future, Grohnert hopes that the openness of the men within the series will help other men struggling with mental health and identity to reach out for help, to show that they aren’t alone in their feelings. “That’s really all I can hope for: watch the films, share them with someone you care about.” She adds “. As many of the men express in the films, you can’t ever really know how someone is doing, how they truly feel inside. The more you [talk about emotions], the more likely we’ll see a wider shift in culture.” 

Hence, when the interviewee’s were asked about how the ‘Being Men’ series had impacted them, the majority stated that it had a positive impact on them and that the series allowed them to feel more confident within their emotions. One of the boys stated “the series made me laugh at times but it also allowed me to realise that I wasn’t alone. It made me realise that many men feel the same, and if we talked about it more often, we would overcome the pressures and expectations placed upon us as young men.”

Therefore, there is a need within Australia and New Zealand for men to not shy away from their emotions, but instead to openly discuss them with others, whether that being a friend or family member. As shown through the ‘Being Men’ series and campaigns such as HeadFirst, the emotional vulnerability of males can spark eye-opening conversation, and initiate other young men to discuss any feelings of sadness, anxiety or weakness that are often rejected from society. These young men are the ones who become victims to mental health issues as a result of stigma and cultural pressures enforced in these trans-Tasman societies, and now, it is more important than ever, to end this detrimental effect on the mental health of young men. 

You can find the entire ‘Being Men’ series here.