Major report on Mental Health and Gender Equality ignores Men and Boys

A new report which aims to promote “gender equality in mental health and clinical research” and has been adopted by the European Parliament, ignores the needs of men and boys, according to a leading male suicide expert.

According to Assistant Professor Rob Whitley, from the Department of Psychiatry at McGill University, the new report “purports to promote gender equality” but encourages “policies that would entrench inequality” and “calls for…women..to receive special privileges which are not accorded to…men”.

According to Whitley,  the report also ignores the needs of “vulnerable male sub-populations” such as gay men who “have some of the highest suicide and self-harm rates in Europe”.  The report calls on member states to “take account of the specific needs of lesbians and bisexual and transgender persons”, but ignores the specific needs of gay men, he claims.

Whitley, who visited Australia to speak about male suicide at the New Male National Men’s Health Gathering in March, has also spoken at the European Parliament about the inequalities experienced by men and boys. These include the fact that suicide kills around 120 people a day across Europe (90 male suicides and 30 suicides) and three quarters of those who take their owns lives are men and boys.

Whitley believes that the European report is based on “ideology rather than evidence” which leads the authors to blame the  “high rates of suicide in men…on unproven factors such as masculinity”. In contrast, mental illness in women is blamed on men who “do not devote themselves sufficiently to household tasks and bringing up daughters and sons, causing many women to suffer from depression, anxiety and stress”,  he says.

In contrast,  “discussion of proven risk factors for suicide or depression [that can be experienced differentially by men and women] such as adverse childhood experience, financial strain, social isolation, divorce or bereavement are absent”, says Whitley.

In summary, Whitley’s key point is that while reports highlighting some of the issues that women and girls face is welcome and can help mental health activists advocate for positive change, it’s important to acknowledge that men and boys also have gendered issues that can impact mental health, and these must be recognized and addressed too.

You can read Assistant Professor Whitely’s comments in more detail  in his article at Psychology Today (Gender and Mental Health Do Men Matter Too?).

COMMENTARY 

By Glen Poole, Stop Male Suicide Project

Although I haven’t read the full report, Rob’s critique suggests that it is a classic example of a ‘gendered approach’ to a social issue that at best ignores one gender and at worst blames one gender (in this case men) for the problems of another gender (in this case women). In populist terms this is what I refer to as the “women HAVE problems and men ARE problems” approach to gender issues.

It’s great to see that Rob isn’t advocating for a gendered approach that favours men (and blames women) instead. Nor does he argue for a ‘gender neutral’ approach that ignores, ignores the specific needs of men and women. What Rob appears to be arguing for is a focus on the specific needs of men and boys in addition to, not in opposition to, women and girls. This is an example of what I call a “gender inclusive” approach.

The challenge of developing a “gender inclusive” approach to any issue, is that while highlighting the different needs of men and women and developing male-friendly and female-friendly responses to those needs can make a significant difference, one of the major barriers to developing gender inclusive policy and services,  is gender politics.

From my perspective, everyone has a gender political view of the world, but most of us aren’t conscious of this fact. This can lead us to see our gender political view as “right” (and based on evidence) and the gender political view of others as “wrong” (and based on ideology). So while Rob’s instinct that the report is “driven by ideology rather than evidence” is, in my view, too simplistic, it does point to an important issue.

The evidence we choose to highlight or ignore is shaped by our gender political view of the world. So those whose gender political views lead them to focus on “masculinity” as the primary cause of suicide would no doubt dismiss the suggestion that there is no “evidence” for these claims.

The challenge then, for those concerned about male suicide who hold a different gender political perspective, is how to include and integrate this “evidence” into “our thinking” and how to persuade others, who tend to ignore the type of “evidence” that Rob is pointing to on the social determinants of male suicide, to include and integrate this “evidence” in the “their thinking”.

This is the challenge of thinking beyond a them and us, either/or, right and wrong approach to embrace a “both/and” approach to male suicide prevention that works for everyone.

For me, a gender inclusive approach to suicide prevention has three key elements:

  • Identifying the specific needs of suicidal men and suicidal women;
  • Understanding where differences exist and responding to the different needs in male-friendly and female-friendly ways, as appropriate;
  • Designing, developing and delivering male-friendly and female-friendly responses to gender issues in ways that include and integrate different gender political worldviews.

This third step is, perhaps, the most complex aspect of gender inclusivity, which isn’t just about acknowledging the importance of gender differences when addressing social issues such as suicide, but also about developing our ability to work with gender political diversity.

As such, rather than viewing the problem of this particular report as being a matter of “ideology versus evidence”, we could consider that the issue with this report is that it takes a “gendered” view of mental health, rather than a “gender inclusive” view and is written from a worldview that is “gender politically exclusive and gender politically divisive” rather than taking a view of the world that is “gender politically inclusive and gender politically diverse”.

The challenge for everyone who is committed to taking action to stop male suicide, is how we manage the transition from a world where our approach to mental health and suicide prevention predominantly gendered or gender neutral, to a world where we are tackling suicide in a gender inclusive way.

One vital step in this process is beginning to notice when gendered approaches are excluding and disadvantaging men and boys and to advocating for gender inclusive approaches that seek to tackle men’s issues (such as male suicide) in addition to, not in opposition to, women’s issues.

As this report appears to be a classic example of people in positions of power taking a gendered approach to mental health that ignores the specific needs of men and boys, it’s great to see Rob highlighting the problems with this report and advocating for a gender inclusive approach that seeks to improve everyone’s mental health and wellbeing, men and boys included.

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