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Why gender based stereotypes are risky for men

I woke this morning to the news of Chris Cornell’s death. It’s devastating to hear that this talented musician, one of the great architects of the grunge music scene ended his own life. It pains me more to know that every day in Australia around five men make the same decision.

This week I have been involved in the delivery of a family violence program for one of the Victorian government’s largest departments participating in White Ribbon Accreditation. At the heart of this is understanding that addressing gender inequality is essential to preventing and responding to family violence. Yet, today I can’t help but consider how addressing gender inequality may also help keep our fathers, son’s, husbands, partners and mates safe, to reduce the risk of suicide in men.

For some, it may seem a long bow to draw. To me, it seems so obvious. The gender-based stereotypes that create risks for women are risky for men too. We need to change the story to prevent violence against women and reduce the risk of suicide and mental health issues for men.

In Australian society men and women are not treated equally. Our social norms, practices and structures mean men are shaped to be dominant and in control. When our boys struggle they are told to stop being such a girl or to toughen up. Men who struggle or are emotional are labelled butterball, wimps, soft cocks, pussy, weak… the unmanly list goes on. They are not encouraged to reach for comfort and support; they’ve got to be self-reliant and deal with it on their own.

As a relationship counsellor, this concerns me greatly. At the heart of healthy relationships is the ability to connect to be securely attached. Attachment security is fundamental to healthy relationships and means we can reach and be certain of the comfort and support we need. Yet, the way we are socialising our men is to be powerful, self-reliant and avoid connection. The deleterious effect this has on relationships is reflected in Australian divorce statistics and has intergenerational consequences for the physical and mental health, wellbeing and quality of current and future relationships of our children.

Earlier this year Professor Jane Pirkis, director of the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Mental Health published research demonstrating that men who strongly identify as self-reliant are more likely to have suicidal thoughts. The study involving almost 14,000 Australian men, indicated notions of what it is to be a man contribute to suicidal thoughts. We really need to question gender-based stereotypes and the way masculinity is defined in Australian culture.

Rigid constructions of what it means to be a man or woman are harmful to both men and women. Men are expected to be powerful, to have power over and the power to control (their emotional world). If you can’t control what is happening on the inside, then some start to control what is happening on the outside. When it comes to family violence this is risky. When it comes to men’s mental health and wellbeing it is also risky. It’s time to change the story.

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