By Gabrielle Samson, featured writer

At The Teacher App, a lot of advocacy work in the past has highlighted women’s mental health and looked at the history of gender roles in the education system. After digging up a patriarchal past, it became clear how misogyny still plays a role in our schools. With biases and stereotypes, female teachers are still subjected to gender discrimination. This is especially pertinent, considering women make up the majority of teachers in Canada. But how might gender roles impact men? 

Male privilege can come with a few pitfalls. For one, immense pressure is placed on men to maintain their masculinity and social status. This leads to the epidemic of men’s mental health, where men are less likely to seek help for mental health challenges and more likely to die because of them. A survey from the Mental Health Foundation found that men are far less likely to seek professional help for mental health problems. On top of this, the same survey finds that men are also more likely to hide their mental health challenges from family and friends. 

For men, this suppression pushes suicidal ideation to the forefront, which is especially dangerous as men are more likely to use fatal methods of suicide. Gender stereotypes can severely impact men. But just like with women’s mental health, the number one culprit is misogyny. 

Misogynistic views promote the idea that emotions are solely a feminine experience and are a sign of weakness. Young men and boys are often taught that they are inferior for showing so-called “feminine” characteristics like vulnerability or sensitivity. In other words, femininity is inferior and should be avoided at all costs. Amidst these stereotypes, new studies prove that men are actually just as emotional as women. But regardless of gender, emotions are a healthy and necessary part of the human experience, not a sign of weakness. 

On the bright side, more and more men have spoken up about their mental health, including celebrity figures like Prince Harry, Kid Cudi, Michael Phelps and Dwayne Johnson. Masculinity and femininity are being deconstructed and challenged in the mainstream. And as these discussions are making their way to the forefront, more men and boys are getting a healthy outlook on mental health and masculinity. With campaigns like #BoysDoCry and open dialogues on social media, the next generation seems better equipped to destigmatize mental health. 

And, teachers are vital in this process.

Mental health stigma is integrated in our education system

Most boys learn to hide their emotions at school age. During formative years, by being taught that emotions are wrong from an early age, many boys will struggle with coping by the time they reach adulthood. This is evident at the post-secondary level, where mental health challenges are skyrocketing. University studies show that males make up 69% of university suicides, as they are less likely to seek help and more likely to use lethal methods. This figure is a sad reminder that men need to learn skills for emotion regulation at an early age to better prepare for the more stressful stages of life. It’s also worth noting that the onset for most mental illnesses are often set in adolescence or early adulthood, making it all the more critical that male students are provided resources – ideally, before they even need them. 

There is a massive opportunity for men to learn more about mental health in schools. With stigma slowly disappearing, young men and boys may be more receptive to mental health discussions. But, we need to move quickly. While stigma is on the decline, rates of mental health problems are increasing at an even faster rate. The pandemic created an uptick in social isolation and depression, mainly affecting men who were already less likely to seek support. Since men are less likely to share mental health challenges with friends and family, isolation can intensify. But as Laura McKenna of Edutopia points out, school culture can play a positive role in these changes. 

Anxiety and Burnout in Men

Education plays a vital role in destigmatising men’s mental health. But it’s worth acknowledging that male teachers don’t necessarily have it easy either. A BioMed study shows that men are at a higher risk of developing anxiety disorders in education compared to other careers. The study highlights how teachers – and especially male teachers, seem to be at a higher risk of psychiatric and physical disorders. For example, teachers were found to be at a higher risk of developing UTIs by avoiding bathroom breaks and limiting water intake to keep working. On top of that, men are more likely to experience burnout, leading to physical symptoms like fatigue or weakened immunity. And for most men, the social stigma associated with mental health problems comes with added social pressures and a lack of support from colleagues or staff, making these experiences painful and isolating.

Healthy masculinity means it’s okay to cry

Male teachers have a unique opportunity to help both themselves and their students. One of the great ways male teachers or counselors can engage with their male students is through starting open discussions in their schools and classrooms. This is a great way to demonstrate healthy masculinity that embraces emotional vulnerability. 

The age-old “bottle up your feelings” idea often increases the intensity of emotions and can manifest as anger or stress. This is a concerning problem, as anger and stress can lead to physical health problems and may even shorten a person’s life span. Suppressing emotions can also cause boys to act out of violence and can normalise unskilful behaviour, such as starting fights or acting out. 

Many educators see “acting out” as a punishable behaviour and will jump to retribution instead of education. This carries over to lifelong stigmas, especially for men of colour who are more likely to be incarcerated for poor behaviour rather than given support. Alternatively, men could experience less anger if they were taught to deal with emotions more effectively. In particular, men need to express sadness. 

Unlike anger, sadness is proven to have short and long-term benefits for a person’s mental health. Expressing sadness instead of anger in distressing situations has been shown to improve empathy and well-being and ensures a person doesn’t act out of anger and escalate the situation. In fact, crying releases feel-good chemicals like oxytocin and endorphins. So while many boys are taught that crying makes them weaker, the act actually reduces pain and suffering and leads to overall well-being. 

Most people don’t necessarily enjoy crying itself, but most of us feel better after the tears have stopped. Unfortunately, this makes for a missed opportunity for men discouraged from this healthy behaviour. 

How can we actually help?

Educators may not be able to expel mental health problems entirely. But studies show that teaching boys how to be sad and feel emotions is essential for improving men’s mental health and ultimately saving lives. We need to tell our students, “you’re safe to cry here,” rather than panicking at the sight of natural emotion. In addition to more positive messaging, students desperately need more exposure. A 2020 survey featuring students ages 13-19 found that 79% of respondents wish their school talked more about mental health. This study highlights the importance of addressing mental health in schools. 

Some New York schools have modelled great ways to address student mental health while also supporting male teachers. Scarsdale High School in New York created a Mental Health Awareness Club and partnered with a local mental health organisation to support students and staff. The school also implemented wellness days in classrooms, where teachers would take a break from teaching curriculums and focus on offering distress-tolerance skills and open up mental health discussions. Another example is New Jersey educator Paul Groenewal, who offers group activities for male-identifying students to increase their sense of community and teach stress management skills. And finally, Commack High School also demonstrates a practical approach to mental health by inviting mental health professionals to discuss mental health, toxic masculinity and coping skills. These examples showcase practical approaches to mental health that benefit male students and their teachers. In particular, accessing resources is a great start to opening dialogues and providing support. The Teacher App, for example, is an excellent way of supporting our education system with accessible resources.

The future of men’s mental health starts in the classroom

By offering resources to students and teaching them it’s okay to struggle, teachers can help male students who suffer from social stigmas and pressures. Modelling healthy masculinity is the best way to do this. 

As a male teacher, showing your students it’s okay that you struggle can make a difference. Normalise mental health challenges and share your own methods of coping with stress. While it may seem like a lot of pressure to be a role model for so many young men and boys, this is an opportunity to practice mental health outreach and discussion, ultimately benefiting everyone. In the spirit of “practising what you preach,” the best way to help your students is to help yourself. 

Modelling healthy masculinity is not just limited to male teachers either. Studies show that a teacher’s gender has no direct impact on a student’s learning ability. This means that female teachers can also open these dialogues and offer up resources and discussions that help destigmatize mental health among young men. 

A great way to start is by sharing resources specific to male-identifying students and discussing how gender roles and stereotypes can impact mental health. But regardless of who delivers the message, the important thing for teachers and students to learn is that it’s okay to not be okay. 

It gets better from there.