Mental Health Awareness Week: An excerpt from ‘Boys Don’t Try? Rethinking Masculinity in Schools.’

Our book, Boys Don’t Try? Rethinking Masculinity in Schools contains a whole chapter looking at boys’ mental health. In the chapter we offer a range of suggestions as to how we can improve boys’ mental health. In honour of Mental Health Awareness Week, here are two of these suggestions, taken directly from the book.

Talk with boys using their language

Despite the dominant narrative of male emotional mutism, often men and boys are talking about mental health, but we’re failing to notice that they are because they’re not using the language of mental health we’re listening out for. Men, encouraged to stifle any emotional outpourings from a young age, lack the vocabulary of mental health: so, whilst it wouldn’t seem unusual for a female to say, ‘I’ve been feeling really anxious,’ or, ‘I’m worried I might be depressed,’ the opposite is true for a male, who has been encouraged from birth, to display stoic fortitude and strength at all times. Male use of clinical words such as ‘anxious’, and ‘depressed’, which directly refer to mental health, are not part of the male lexicon because to speak those words would be to speak of weakness. There is a further issue, as Robertson and Baker note, that even phrases like ‘I’m feeling unloved,’ or ‘I have butterflies in my stomach all the time’, which avoid medical terminology, are still feminised and therefore less likely to be used by men. An Australian study, conducted by Fiona Shand et al, surveyed men on the language they used to express suicidal thoughts and depression. The top 5 words or phrases men used to describe feeling suicidal were:

The top 5 words or phrases men used to describe feeling depressed were:

Whilst you won’t get many teenage boys using the phrase, ‘down in the dumps’, what we do see here is the use of acceptably male words (‘stressed’ and ‘tired’ is what you should feel after a day of all that manly work) used euphemistically to express feelings associated with a serious mental health issue.

As teachers we need to be mindful of the language boys use and the very real possibility that when a boy tells us he’s ‘tired’, it might not be because he’s had too much late night X-Box – it might be that he feels he’s had too much life; when he tells us he’s ‘stressed’ it might not be that he’s fed up with revision, it might be that he’s fed up with living. As teachers we need to ensure we take note of the frequency with which boys use these terms, and take note of the contexts in which they are used: I’m tired because I stayed up late is very different to I keep falling out with my friends and I just feel tired of it all.

Provide men to talk to

Whilst students ascribe very little importance to a teacher’s gender in terms of learning, a study in Australia found that where personal matters are concerned, students would prefer to talk to someone of their own gender. In my previous school, the pastoral team – that is, the body of teachers responsible for helping and supporting students with issues not directly related to their subject learning – was largely female. Noticing that this was also the case with pastoral teams on a number of school-based television documentaries, I took to Twitter to see if this reflected a wider trend. Here are the results of a poll, in which 413 people responded:

Overwhelmingly, the staff whose job it is to counsel and console children tends to be female. It’s important that school leaders make a concerted effort to ensure boys know that in their schools, on their pastoral teams there is a man with a kind smile and a sympathetic ear. A boy who is anxious about his penis size, or confused with his sexuality, or fuming at the fact that Lucy in 9B told her friends about the love letter he wrote her, may be desperate for a man to discuss this with. If the shoulders to cry on are always female, we could be doing some boys a huge disservice.

You can order your copy of Boys Don’t Try? Rethinking Masculinity in Schools here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/aw/d/0815350252/ref=tmm_pap_title_0?ie=UTF8&qid=1555932583&sr=8-1

Bibliography

Robertson, S. & Baker, P. (2016) ‘Men and health promotion in the United Kingdom: 20 years forward?’ Health Education Journal, 76, pp. 102-113

Shand FL., Proudfoot J., Player MJ., et al. (2015) ‘What might interrupt men’s suicide? Results from an online survey of men’. BMJ Open. Available at: https://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/bmjopen/5/10/e008172.full.pdf (Accessed: 14th August 2018)

Martin, A. J. & Marsh, H. (2005) ‘Motivating boys and motivating girls: does teacher gender really make a difference?’ Australian Journal of Education, 49:3, pp 320–334.