Bernie Wong | Senior Associate, Mind Share Partners
November is widely known as “Movember,” attributable to the organization that’s dedicated to raising awareness about health issues specific to men such as prostate cancer, testicular cancer, and men's suicide and mental health. When it comes to mental health, “the numbers for suicide are actually going in the wrong direction in the U.S., as well as globally,” shared Mark Hedstrom, Movember’s U.S. executive director. “About 800,000 individuals take their own lives globally and 500,000 of those are men. When we look at the trend in the U.S. context, about 75% of those suicides are men.”
We talked with Hedstrom further as well as Dr. Zac Seidler, Movember’s director of health professional training, to learn more about what’s contributing to the unwavering stigma surrounding men’s mental health both in and outside of the workplace.
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Stereotypes Strengthen The Stigma
Traditional beliefs about what it means to be a man have historically focused on stoic confidence, discouraging emotional expression. In a Movember study conducted this year, 58% of men reported that they think society expects them to be emotionally strong and not show weakness in front of others. This has real impacts—Mind Share Partners “Mental Health at Work 2019 Report” found that men were significantly less likely to have sought treatment for mental health despite similar rates in the overall prevalence of mental health symptoms.
According to Seidler, financial and career fears based in gender stereotypes play a part in the ongoing stigma surrounding men’s mental health as well. In the Movember study, 34% of U.S. men fear their job could be at risk if they discussed their mental health at work. “For many men, holding down a job and being able to provide and take care of their family is still a central part of being a man,” Seidler explained. “If they feel they aren’t living up to that standard, they class themselves as failures.”
While gender norms are changing—with an increase in stay-at-home dads, men reporting a desire to spend more time with their families, and dual household incomes now the norm—old beliefs are still hard to break and are negatively tied to physical and mental health outcomes. Fortunately, more public examples of modern leadership using vulnerability and transparency as a tool to champion culture change have emerged, and we predict these perceptions to shift over time.
The Message Behind The Moustache
Paralleling the end of outdated stereotypes about men are conversations about “toxic masculinity.” While strategies to end these unhealthy beliefs and behaviors are essential, Hedstrom warns that leading with this language can put men on the defensive rather than offering actionable solutions. “We're not saying that there aren't things that men need to do differently. That's absolutely why we're here.” Hedstrom said. “We believe that men can focus on positive masculinity.”
Leaning on positive traits, like altruism, has played a key role in Movember’s marketing initiatives to reach men and address the stigma. One example is their “Grow a mo, save a bro” campaign, which calls on men to grow a mustache (and teaches them how) during the month of November to encourage conversations about men’s health.
This approach leverages both fun and seriousness, as Hedstrom explains: “The fun is the mustache. We're taking a very masculine feature… some call it gamifying a man's face, and get them to be competitive with each other to all of those things and tie into a real authentic connection.” The serious side is what Movember calls internally a "Trojan horse,” where the fun approach allows men to engage a more serious conversation, ultimately bringing awareness to challenges they face.
The Changing Landscape Of Masculinity
As awareness about men’s mental health has grown, so have conversations about issues of mental health and diversity within these communities. Specifically, Mind Share Partners’ report found that LGBTQ+ respondents were more likely to experience symptoms of every mental health condition like anxiety or depression compared to non-LGBTQ+ respondents, and transgender respondents twice as likely.
“The effects of traditional masculinity on gay men, trans men, non-binary, and other gender expressions are important to address in this conversation,” Hedstrom acknowledged. In response, Movember has dedicated tailored content such as the “Mo LGBTQ+ Fundraising Challenge” and featured stories like LGBTQ+ actor and producer Justin Mikita who shared his struggled with anxiety and depression. “There’s a lot of inherent shame in the queer community, and as a gay man, I know that many of my friends and those within the LGBTQ community have had to go through a journey with their mental health, including myself.”
Hedstrom also shared how his own lens of masculinity has changed over time. “I’m a Gen-Xer and I wasn't really attuned to how I was raised with the lens of masculinity within my own family.” Despite his father having had depression his whole life, it was only in the past seven years when his father began to struggle more that Hedstrom recognized its impact. “I've moved to a very different conversation with my father and my brothers, as well as my mother. And that navigation—with three boys who are all [Gen] X-ers and our inability to have these conversations and showing our emotions—has dramatically changed in those five years.”
Generations and the LGBTQ+ community are just two of many groups and identities with unique experiences and needs when it comes to mental health. These conversations at the intersection of mental health and diversity, equity, and inclusion will only grow in the coming years.
What It All Means For Men’s Mental Health At Work
From awareness and education, to concrete strategies for self-care and supporting others, there are many ways to support men’s mental health at work. Seidler suggests that findings ways to tackle the stigma around discussing mental health in a workplace setting that doesn’t discourage men from getting the help they need is vital. “This can start with leaders encouraging conversations about the tough stuff and reassuring staff that they won’t face discrimination for speaking openly and that they will be supported,” he added. When top executives champion mental health in their workplace, men can focus less on the possible financial and career repercussions they might face, and more on getting the support they need.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.
Bernie is a Senior Associate at Mind Share Partners. He focuses primarily on organization programming, marketing, and design. Prior to Mind Share Partners, Bernie was an Associate at HopeLab, a human-centered design consulting nonprofit, where he developed evidence-based products and solutions to support mental health and wellbeing.
Bernie has also worked in freelance visual design, in education at Stanford as a Head Teaching Assistant, and in editorial work and academic research. Bernie also sits on the board of the Gay Asian Pacific Alliance (GAPA) Foundation, a grassroots philanthropic organization that provides funds and leverages resources to empower Asian/Pacific Islander LGBTQ students, organizations, and communities.
Bernie holds a Master of Health Science in Mental Health from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and a B.A. in Psychology and Sociology from UC Berkeley.