BYU professor, students seek to create environments where men can be vulnerable about mental health

A BYU student walks on campus. BYU Professor Kevin Shafer said school stress is one factor that can affect men’s mental health. (Megan Zaugg)

BYU sociology professor Kevin Shafer conducted research on men’s mental health, including what shapes attitudes on men’s mental health and factors predicting whether men get help for these issues.

Shafer said some reasons men are less likely to reach out for mental health help include society’s strong emphasis on self-sufficiency for men, a lack of knowledge in how or who to turn to for mental health help and a gender bias mental health professionals have favoring and focusing on women’s issues. 

“Very few men go into the mental health field, which causes significant gender disparities in diagnoses based on the perspectives mental health professionals have,” Shafer said.

Ryan Cleverly, a junior studying psychology at BYU, wrote a literature review on the negative effects of toxic masculinity and emotional expression. Cleverly said men’s mental health is affected by several different factors. He found that men are less able to connect with others, form healthy relationships, as well as provide the support others need from them in their life. 

“There is a biological component to mental health … social things like your work environment, what is happening in school or new stressors in your life all impact mental health,” Shafer said. “Men who become dads also experience postpartum depression like moms do.”

Cleverly said he believes part of the stigma surrounding men’s mental health is because there are few examples of men who have sought help or gone into the mental health profession, so it can be hard for men to feel comfortable seeking help. 

“Some of the research I found showed men actually found their sense of masculinity and strength increased after going through the help-seeking process,” Cleverly said. 

Shafer explained public health campaigns focusing on men’s mental health, increased discussion about resources for men in various settings and getting more men involved in the mental health profession would help overcome this disparity. 

“There was a talk Elder Holland gave about mental health and he said he had struggled with his mental health and it was such a powerful message because he is successful and a leader of our faith and for him to come out and say he struggles too meant so much to me and helped destigmatize it,” Shafer said of Elder Holland, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Cleverly said when he was 12 years old, he experienced severe anxiety and depression. When he talked to someone about it, they told him boys were not supposed to feel those emotions and his anxiety and depression were an embarrassment to him and his family. 

“I found myself shoving those emotions down in an attempt to remove them from my life and I did not want anyone else to know what I was feeling,” Cleverly said. “That obviously does not work and I eventually needed to work through those feelings with professional help.”

Shafer said in American society, men are taught as young boys they are not supposed to depend on anyone else or admit they struggle. 

“Many men think being depressed is just part of being a male,” Shafer said. “They just think every guy experiences these mental health problems because it is just part of being a guy.”

Cleverly said that because men do not have as many close friends as women, it can be harder for them to reach out to those around them for help.

“Men are consistently less likely to reach out for mental health help,” Cleverly said. “While there are resources for men to use, there is a lack of resources geared toward men which specifically address the things men face.”

Cleverly added he also thinks there is large societal pressure placed on men to remain strong and independent, which creates an overpowering stigma about help-seeking.

“As a society, the biggest thing I think we can do is create environments which allow men to be vulnerable,” Cleverly said.

Shafer explained he struggles with depression and anxiety, and recalled the first time anyone talked to him about his mental health.

“My brother in law said he struggled with depression and he thought maybe I did too,” Shafer said. “It was hard for me to admit but he was kind and vulnerable about his own mental health, and it made me feel like it was safe and okay to finally admit it was a problem I had for a long time.”

Cleverly also said being aware of the words we use is important. He said terms like “man up” or “real men don’t cry” are some of the most damaging things which are said to men every day. 

An infographic shows data about men’s mental health. BYU Professor Kevin Shafer says men are less likely than women to reach out for mental health help. (Made in Canva by Olivia Tillotson)

“These small things we do daily are sometimes causing the most pain,” Cleverly said. “The way we talk to and about people and situations affects how we perceive the world, so if we continue to use this vernacular, men will continue to be reluctant to seek help.”

Savanna Bagley, a senior in BYU’s communications studies master’s program, said she has seen stigma around men’s mental health as she has watched her friends speak out against the stigma and about their own mental health.

“Men are taught to keep things inside, which just makes it worse down the road,” Bagley said.

Cleverly said although he thinks society is becoming more aware of men’s mental health, he thinks it still falls through the cracks and is deemed unimportant.

“Around 80% of suicides in the United States are men and I believe we must address this as a society and do our very best to encourage men to seek help because it does help and will help them feel better and healthier,” Cleverly said.

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