Beyond gender stereotypes: supporting young men’s mental health

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4 February 2021

By Kadra Abdinasir

There has been an increasing interest in gender differences in mental health in recent years across the fields of research, policy and practice. When we look at gender disparities in young people's mental health in particular, the focus is often on girls and young women. This is because the evidence suggests that their mental health is generally poorer than those who identify as boys and young men. Levels of poor mental health are higher still among trans young people; and any gender lens to mental health must look beyond a binary approach. However, there are stark mental health inequalities faced by boys and young men that are poorly understood. This results in boys and young men falling under the radar of mental health services.

To mark Children’s Mental Health Week, we wanted to shine a spotlight on the mental health of boys and young men. While young men are less likely to experience the most common mental health conditions than young women, emotional distress is still widespread, and up to the age of 11, boys are more likely to have mental health difficulties than girls.

there are stark mental health inequalities faced by boys and young men that are poorly understood, resulting in boys and young men falling under the radar of mental health services

Among boys, our previous research suggests that behavioural problems are the most common mental health difficulty they face, yet these are often not understood as reflecting emotional distress. Children and young people with the most serious and enduring behavioural problems have some of the poorest lifetime outcomes, and very often they exist alongside other mental health problems.

Boys and young men are also at risk of developing mental health difficulties resulting from social and economic inequalities. For example, our Against the Odds report found that boys and young men entering the criminal justice systems have very high levels of poor mental health and often a history of unsuccessful attempts to get help for their mental health.

Thriving, not just surviving

Stigma and gender stereotypes mean that boys and young men with mental health problems can find it challenging to access support. In 2018, Comic Relief launched its “Thriving Not Just Surviving” programme to invest in initiatives that place the needs of young men at its heart. It funded a cohort of 23 organisations and partnerships from across the UK to deliver ‘male-friendly’ mental health support.

Centre for Mental Health was commissioned to support learning, capacity building, and systems change alongside the delivery of the programme. We have been working alongside Comic Relief and funded partners to facilitate a series of collective learning events and provide light-touch support and advice to projects. We have also been interpreting findings from individual projects to identify key themes and learning. Over the next few months, we will be sharing key lessons from the programme to help inform policy and practice.

Stigma and gender stereotypes mean that boys and young men with mental health problems can find it challenging to access support.

All 23 funded partners have been using a wide range of creative and innovative approaches to tackle the mental health challenges boys and young men face. For example, one project has been engaging in conversations about mental health with young men in barbershops.

Another project works with boys and young men to explore their mental health through art, drama and film. Several projects offer young men access to sporting and leisure activities, such as football and boxing as part of an integrated therapeutic offer. We are also identifying how offering boys and young men more flexibility, including the use of online support during the ongoing pandemic, is enabling them to engage and thrive.

How can we better support boys and young men?

A consistent theme emerging from our work with young men is that they are not necessarily reluctant to engage with mental health support, but that they choose to engage in different ways. Therefore, a wide range of measures are needed to better promote the mental health of boys and young men.

Emerging insights from the Thriving Not Just Surviving programme and from our previous research suggests that services seeking to support boys and young men should:

  • Use innovative and creative approaches to help young men and boys build their resilience
  • Present healthy ideas of masculinity
  • Present a positive attitude to mental health and encourage help-seeking
  • Strengthen key protective factors such as access to education and employment and promote positive relationships
  • Promote positive parenting and address behavioural difficulties
  • Deliver mental health support closer to where boys and young men are, in environments where they feel most comfortable
  • Reduce the structural inequalities faced by boys and young men such as racial inequality, sexuality, gender identity, disability, immigration status and financial insecurity
  • Prevent school exclusions and put in place alternative interventions, such as positive behavioural support
  • Implement a trauma-informed approach and recognise that boys and young men are also at risk of abuse and exploitation.

Working alongside boys and young men in these ways can help to improve their mental health with benefits that last a lifetime.

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