There is more than one way to "be a man".
Suppressing emotional expression to fit with cultural norms can lead to disconnection and isolation, which can be a slippery slope to depression, violence towards self and others, and potentially suicide.
This video suggests this process begins at 4 years of age; there is also research (to be shared another time) that this conditioning begins with the way we respond to the needs of male newborns.
Touch is a basic human emotional need. When experienced, it nurtures our self esteem, increases compassion, reduces stress, and creates connection with self and others. We are hardwired to enjoy physical connection with others (unless we have a sensory disorder or mental illness which prevents us from finding pleasure with the experience).
This video explores how males often unlearn this need through childhood and adolescence as they conform to societal and familial expectations. They don’t want to cross a line with females and they associate masculine touch only with sexuality.
Males who lack physical contact often feel isolated, which may lead to them shutting down emotionally, experiencing depression, anxiety, and becoming prone to conflict which can manifest as violent behaviour toward others.
While the the negative mental health impact may seem clear from the outside looking in, when adolescent males disconnect from other male relationships and choose to suppress not express feelings, they need significant levels of support to dismiss societal expectations and embrace a new pathway to manhood.
Breaking free from the “man box” is not something young men can do on their own. Parents, educators, the media, teachers, girlfriends, boyfriends, and others need to be part of the process of reinforcing positive, equitable, unrestrictive ideas of manhood.
Children and adolescents look to their mentors for guidance on learning and unlearning skills and behaviours. One of the most valuable steps a mentor can take to support a child or adolescent who may be struggling with their mental health is to start a conversation. Let them know it is okay to talk openly and share their concerns. Assure them that they will be seen and heard.
Want to learn more about starting a conversation? This toolkit from headspace is a great place to start.