Coronavirus and the Gendered Expectations of Men

by Chris Burner, LCSWA, MDIV, SEP

COVID-19 has changed the way we collectively and individually grieve loss. Throughout the globe, positive-stricken individuals have lost their battles with the virus while loved ones have been forced to mourn their family members, lovers, and friends from afar. Small businesses and large corporations alike have succumbed to premature death. Unemployment is rampant, and because this seismic shift has taken place in less than three months, those of us left behind find ourselves in survival mode. While COVID-19 has proven unbiased in its stronghold on all economies and peoples, men—as the specific focus of this article—not only suffer in silence because of societal expectations, but also struggle to reach out because of mental health stigmatization.

Because of patriarchal norms and influences, boys—early in their development—experience magnified pressure to uphold traditional interpretations of masculinity. Boys grow up hearing: “stop crying, what are you a girl? Are you a sissy? Don’t be so sensitive.” Boys are ridiculed for being honest and forthright about their emotions, leading them to suppress any sort of sadness, anger, or disappointment. They then grow into men who struggle to communicate or cope with intense emotions. Behavioral strategies, such as avoidance and repression, plague interpersonal relationships and can evolve into volatility, rage, substance use, addiction, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, sexual promiscuity, and other high-risk behaviors.

Adult men are then encouraged to become “the provider.” The ability to financially provide for their families and loved ones becomes inextricably linked to a man’s identity and sense of self-worth. When business is good and there is money, this identity is validated. Yet, when there is financial famine, self-identity emasculates with failure and worthlessness.

Because COVID-19 has stripped so many men of their ability to financially provide, mental health symptoms are inevitably surfacing. Some men may be experiencing significant grief: including emotional responses of sadness, devastation, shock, or anger. Others unwillingly might experience the emotional rollercoaster of helplessness, powerlessness, and lack of control. Some men might be feeling a loss of identity: as a provider, a worker, or one that others rely upon to make ends meet. Others might be worried about the future, feeling anxious or insecure about their role as a breadwinner.

In turn, these mental health symptoms serve as evidence for deeply ingrained negative cognitions to sway interpretations of self-worth. Some of these cognitions can include and are not limited to: “I am not enough;” “there is something wrong with me;” “I am broken;” “I don’t belong;” or “I’m unlovable.” These beliefs then initiate a spiral into other self-defeating thoughts, behaviors, and emotions. As the following image illustrates, thoughts, behaviors, and emotions are all linked and undoubtedly influence one another. For instance, the thought: “You are a failure” arrives (thought). In response to this thought, one smokes a cigarette or drinks an alcoholic beverage to self-medicate (behavior). Then, one feels increasingly guilty or shameful because they’ve perpetuated this self-medicating behavior (emotion). So, the cycle continues to spiral, influenced by precipitating thoughts, behaviors, or emotions.

In response, men need to be directed towards appropriate mental health resources that both support men’s unique experiences while also providing adequate interventions for symptomology. Studies show that men can benefit from male-oriented support services, networks, and professionals with whom to talk. Men can also profit from being taught ways to emotionally support themselves and their families. Some options for resources include: online forums or support sites, telephone helplines, or professional counselling. Because COVID-19 has barricaded in-person gatherings or meetings, such as group therapy, men might also find support via Skype or zoom.

While these aforementioned options are ideal, male mental health is still unfortunately stigmatized globally. Some men feel isolated and restricted from being upfront about their mental health concerns with their partners or families. Yet, if a man can find a trusted confidant, friend, or ally with whom to be transparent, meaningful and constructive processing can occur. What’s important is feeling safe: to be honest, in a non-judgmental, affirming environment while also feeling seen and heard. It’s in these safe spaces where we discover that we’re really much more alike than different; that we can empathize with each other’s concerns more readily than not, and that we can grow in our connection to one another. It’s in these spaces where the healing happens.