Amid the confluence of a pandemic, its mutating variants, the uneven production and delivery of vaccines, the economic fallout, potentially as damaging as some kind of military-engagement devastation, this morning Dr. Robert Whitley, as associate professor of psychiatry at McGill University and a research scientist at the Douglas Research Centre (also associated with McGill) contributed a highly provocative piece to the CBC. Entitled, “Alarming numbers around men’s mental health indicate need foo national response,” Dr. Whitley documents some shocking, trend-shaping, and tragic information:
· Men account for 75% of suicides in Canada, an average of 50 men per week dying of suicide.
· Canadian men are around three times more likely to experience addiction and substance abuse compared to Canadian women.
· In B.C. the Coroner’s Service reports that males accounted for 81% of drug overdose deaths in that province in 2020.
· Statistics Canada noted that one in four boys do not graduate from high school on time, a rate significantly higher than for girls
· A study found that nearly 9% of men aged 25 to 34 never graduate from high school, almost double the rate for similarly aged women
· 4 in 10 university students are male and a lack of post0-secondary education leaves people ill-equipped for the new economy
· The unemployment rate for 25029-year-old-men who are actively seeking work is twice that of similarly aged women, the second-largest gender gap in the OECD
· A massive decline in traditional blue-collar industries leaving fewer jobs for unskilled workers, especially in rural areas, and medium sized towns with few alternatives. Absence from the workforce can leave people bereft of pride and purpose, contributing to despair, alienation and isolation.
· Angus-Reid survey found that 63% of 18-34-year-old Canadian men experienced considerable loneliness and isolation, compared to 53% of similarly aged women
· Evidence suggest that men underutilize mental health services, with women being three times more likely to seek such help
· Studies indicate that men tend to prefer more informal action-based or group-based mental health services to 1-on-1 talk therapy
· The U.K., House of Commons launched an inquiry into the mental health of men and boys in 2019, a decision supported by all political parties
Dr. Whitley calls for a need to create a parliamentary inquiry in Canada on men’s mental health issues, to include a critical examination of policies and programs in education, employment and health care.
Before we get to the mountain of empirical data about employment and educational trends, let’s pause, just for a few moments and cast our gaze over what can be legitimately termed “male culture” in Canada. We are, and have been for a century, raised in such pathetic aphorisms as “don’t cry, big boys don’t cry!” and “suck it up, you’ll be alright!” “don’t tell me you’re sick, when you really don’t want to go to school,” and even, deplorably, “real boys don’t play house, dolls”….And such epithets come from the mouths of both mothers and fathers, all of them determined to raise a young boy who is battle-tested and therefore battle-ready, in order to ‘take on the world’. And given that ‘battle’ imagery, and the cultural icons, myths, heroes and movies that celebrate all things military/war/battle/espionage/power/winners and the obvious and tragic opposites, losers/prisoners/victims/failure/loss/ and the multiple contributing factors that demean others (stupidity/ignorance/innocence/weakness/unpreparedness/lack of discipline/defiance of authority/) have come to saturate not only the military establishments, but also the organizational hierarchies, power structures, (pyramidal, autocratic, single executive,) and the cultural conventions that sustain those structures, how can we be surprised?
Sycophancy was not invented by the Republican Senators in the U.S. Congress. It abounds in every hierarchical organization on the continent. And every rookie recruit knows implicitly that he must “pay his dues” and “pay homage” to the traditions, the ethos and the personalities of those currently in charge and those on whose shoulders the edifice was built. Power rains, reigns and reins ubiquitously….downward, regally, and constrictingly of innovation, free, open and honest communication in those pyramidal top-heavy organizations whose legacy will infect both men and women for decades, if not centuries. It is also not accidental, either, to note that women ‘fit’ into such structures with much greater ease and compliance, and conformity, knowing that ‘pleasing’ those in power ‘will attract more flies’ than vinegar (just like sugar!)
And, conversely, young boys and emerging adult men, in our valiant and often misguided effort to identify as “different” from our female peers, take great pleasure in the grease and oil of a machine that needs fixing, and also take great umbrage at participating orally in classes that are designed to analyse critically Jane Austen’s or Emily Bronte’s or George Elliot’s novels, of Emily Dickinson’s or Margaret Avison’s poems. We engage eagerly in all social activities that put the latest football games, and especially the most onerous tackles in the spotlight. In short, we are steeped, brewed, casked in a culture of brittle, narrow, strictly enforced masculinity. And that masculinity, while not sustainable, is suffering from an onslaught of erosive forces over which neither individual males, nor even groups of males have much if any control.
Those is power, making decisions, mostly male, are so obsessed with their/our own immediate personal gratification (wages, ambition, power symbols, records, trophies, and legacies) that we care not a ‘fig’ for how we might be influencing generations of young men who will inevitably emulate our “success”. We are trained, like Pavlov’s dogs, to strive for success. And that success, we are indoctrinated to believe, and to embody, and to enhance, will assure us of our desired status and station: married, with achieving children, a beautiful home, a nice car, trendy vacations, a pension plan and a coterie of friends. Of course, while there is a grain of truth in the myth, there is also a large “dose of salt” that minimizes life’s complexities, life’s challenges, life’s sicknesses, divorces, deaths, bankruptcies, firings, redundancies, economic depressions, global recessions, pandemics, global warmings, and the rising and receding tides of technologies, machines, medical interventions and evolving cultural models and demands. And, contrary to popular opinion, learning how to become a professional golfer, or scholarship hockey or football athlete may or may not entail those highly impacting experiences of set-back, interruption, defamation, and threat that can and often will overtake even the most “successful”.
Add to this bildungsroman that attaches to and identifies each adolescent male who is emerging into adulthood, a masculine cultural stereotype that silently whispers, “You have to get through this alone,” especially if the problem/pain/discomfort/anxiety/fear/failure does not include a physical, observable and treatable bodily injury. Strength, traditionally, and almost sacredly, is both developed and displayed by an individual, except in team sports, where individual skills embodied by those special athletes, stand out and define excellence for the coaches, other team members and certainly the parents. While Canada’s college applicants’ landscape differs from that of a U.S. college applicant, it is not accidental, nor irrelevant in a general sense, to note that many U.S. parents are so committed to their young son’s or daughter’s admission to a ‘first class school’ that they turn the complete routine and budget of their family into a production house to develop athletic skills at the highest and most costly level, in order to pave their child’s entry into those schools. Imitation, while considered by some to be the greatest form of flattery, is also a potential cultural mimicking that warrants deep and critical examination.
However, any such public examination, I fear, will devolve into a combination of individual biographies, (case histories) as well as a compilation of sociological, statistical data, whose curves and predictions will then be interpreted and translated into policies that plow public dollars into the “problem’ as if, to repeat, what we do in all other instances of public angst can and will assuage all vestiges of public guilt, shame, responsibility and lingering attention to a deeply rooted and tenaciously-held mythology. Our culture is so truth-averse, so deeply ingrained in avoidance of personal responsibility, especially when it concerns a publicly documented, and thereby politically radioactive, social and cultural issue. We are very quick to tap the keys (letters) on our phones and tablets to excoriate individuals whose lives insult our sense of public decency, public ethics and morality, and the concomitant “ire” that seems to have seeped (flooded) into our neighbourhoods, courtrooms, and our public transit systems. On the other hand, we are also very quick to minimize any public issue that not only appears to be highly complex, but actually is extremely complicated. And this “avoidance/denial” mechanism helps us to deflect an authentic and shared and national responsibility for our own part in the national tragedy. “It’s too big and complicated for me to do anything about it anyway!” becomes a chorus, if not a national anthem, as we all look askance and disdain public figures who might actually be invested in making things better ridiculing their every proposal as ineffective, inadequate, too costly and motivated primarily by self-interest.
Vacillation between denial and avoidance, on the one hand, and a public posture that, while attempting to integrate the implications of research into the proposed recommendations, fails to engage the whole public consciousness, as well as the shared unconsciousness, will generate a brief flurry of symptom-directed activity, a few doctoral theses, a plethora of public envelopes of cash and the needed administrators, and little shift in the tectonic cultural plates that underpin the continental, if not global, demise of men, and the masculinity-shackles that impales too many.
Our families, our schools, our colleges and universities, and our corporations including the public service and the military all share in helping to generate the problem of masculine mental turbulence, and it will take all of them, individually and collectively to begin to address this sleeping and growing malaise. And, too, all of our churches will have to bring out the individual and the organizational mirrors, and investigate the origins and the histories of all of our deities, (almost exclusively male) and the hierarchies of dogma, belief and ritual that have been designed, imposed, sacralized and dissected for their toxic potency in the lives of millions of men, over centuries.
We have played religious (and pseudo-theological) war games from the beginning. We have pontificated our “truth” as the one and only. We have colonized millions with our self-serving, deity-denying power trips, on all continents, and then rewarded those colonizers with the “blessings of God” as we conceived HIM to be. The churches, all of them, to a greater or lesser extent, have traded in the generation of how men and women are to obey their god, how they are to procreate, with whom they are to procreate, to love and to dwell with. They have also enjoined in making their models and their ideologies, and their beliefs sacred and pure, while remaining silent about the inevitable, undeniable and veritable scepticism, doubt, uncertainty, vagueness, humility and pathos of their wandering pilgrimages. And while that was continuing, the churches built organizational structures, pedagogical systems, evangelizing systems, funding edifices, as well as worship and liturgical traditions that all contributed in their own way to the kind of tensions we are now witnessing among men and women around the world.
Naturally, Canadians will focus on the plight of the men who live here. And that focus will have to include the ravages of both world wars, including the Canadian patriotic heroes who died and those who returned from the front, mentally ravaged by what has only recently been legitimized as PTSD, and treated, however meagerly. And into any new fabric of Canadian culture, will have to be woven the more recent fibres of the celebration of gay men and trans and bi- men whose contributions will continue to unfold.
And in the midst of the new tapestries of masculinity, celebrating the diversity of examples, there will have to be an extensive effort to disabuse many straight men from their ambivalence, if not outright hostility to gayness, and to gay men specifically. And in that worthy initiative, the Christian churches, at least, will have to play a significant role, given that the biblical injunction against homosexuality continues to plague much theological interpretation and practice even if it remains under the public radar.
The issue of the mental health and wellness of Canadian males, while peeking out from behind the many veils of secrecy and avoidance, will continue to attract researchers, scholars, athletic professionals, and hopefully theologians and social critics, as well as a bevy of educators steeped in the multiple dimensions of healthy masculinity. Mothers and fathers, too, of especially new born boys, would help to begin the process by poring over such books as “the Wonder of Boys” by Michael Gurian….and then searching for the many other insightful and supportive works about boys and men that are appearing in bookstores and on line.
As an integral part of any move toward enhanced mental health of and for men, the term “toxic masculinity” ( a term coined in the mythopoetic men’s movement of the 1980’s and 90’s) will have to be tempered at least. It is not masculinity that by definition is toxic, but the acts by which men are tragically and persistently sabotaged by other men, themselves deeply burdened by their own experiences, and too often, their participation in denying responsibility and certainly in refusing to seek help soon enough to prevent those tragic acts. And, it says here that the hand of a supportive, courageous, creative and independent female colleague, partner, friend can and often does provide the light and the empathy that can neutralize some of the symptoms of toxic masculinity.
Healthy families, classrooms, organizations, churches and businesses depend on healthy men. And it will take us all to help to move our culture toward a time when the Whitley report will no longer be either so relevant or so urgent.