Thursday, 19 January 2012

Male Health and Society: Joining the Dots

Understanding male mental health is about joining the dots. This is what we have as yet failed to do. Three facts illustrate the challenges of mental health and reconstructing masculinity in the light of it.

The first fact is this: that young men, between the ages of 15 and 34 are at least three times more likely to commit suicide than women. According to the most recent statistics, 4,532 suicides were recorded in England and Wales, 75% of which were men.1

I know these facts are not unfamiliar, but the issue gains a subtlety and pressing curiosity when placed alongside the fact that female admission to health services as a result of depressive illness outweighs men by a ratio of 2:1. This doesn't add up, and it is a failure to join the dots in this regard that charactersises where we are at as a culture when it comes to male mental health.

Now the second fact.2 A new report by the European Union projects that there will be 24 million less working age men by 2060. The issue of health among men is of immediate concern, then, to the economy, as much as it is to individuals. The report confirmed that men are not as good as women at taking responsibility for their health, across the board, although the attitude towards health varies significantly according to social class and cultural background. This very fact shows that male ill-health is not a fact about gender disposition, but is a matter of cultural messaging.

The third fact is one that gets the least coverage, but which is under everyone's nose. That men are responsible for the majority of violent crimes. Nine times as many men as women were in jail in America as of 2001. In 2004, men were nearly ten times more likely than females to commit murder.3

It suits many people to explain away crime figures of any kind by creating a criminal “otherness,” around those who commit them. These people are simply born that way. In arguing for this, we suit ourselves by dissociating ourselves from such behaviour, allowing ourselves to turn away from the reality of violence in our culture and our own responsibilities towards it.

Governments and mainstream media are very fond of doing this. Create a war on crime, rather than try to understand its nature. It is easier to declare war than it is to solve issues of integrity closer to home. Just ask foreign policy makers in the US and UK. Creating evilness and “otherness” covers a multitude of sins at home.

If it is indeed an intrinsic quality of the male chromosome that it is more inclined towards violent behaviour, then why is female crime on the increase?4 It may still be a lot less than crimes perpetrated by men, but its rate of increase is a deep cause for concern and requires examination.

My point here is to bring to light the cultural forces at play generating male pathologies. There is too much variation, too many unaccountable facts in the social reality, for these pathologies to be explained as intrinsic qualities of the male gender.

If Feminism is right, then gender itself is a construction we can rise above. Why then are many of us in the post-feminist culture so eager to damn men to intrinsic tendencies? If womanhood and all that we take that to be, is a cultural construction, then it follows that maleness is also the product past constructions.

One of the problems with the post-feminist culture is that we are willing to examine our ideas about femininity in the hope of equality, but an examination of masculinity is still largely off limits. My belief is that this is because equality is one thing, but a complete overhaul of values is quite another. Examining our ideas of masculinity goes a lot deeper into our collective ideas about what it means to be human, and to function within a social unit, than examining our ideas about femininity exclusively.

True Feminism has created a domino effect. In examining femininity and its fabrications, we are necessarily faced with the challenge of understanding masculinity. Things simply will not change for women, or for anybody, if this is not done. But in examining masculinity, we examine our deepest values as a society. We are confronted with the ugliness and violence of Patriarchy.

In deconstructing Patriarchy we must also deconstruct our ideas about what it means to be human, about our so-called “enlightened values.” It is going to require us, both men and women, to take a good hard look at ourselves.


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