Masculinity and Mental Health

Charles Saunders is a Political Science and Psychology double major. Outside of academics, he enjoys playing pickup basketball, Skyrim, Yugioh, and study breaks at the most inconvenient of times.

Even in today’s society, where psychology, medicine, and the media have worked towards open communication about mental illness, there remains a definitive stigma. This stigma is especially exacerbated by the gendered stereotypes surrounding mental illness: women are outwardly emotional, while men are unemotional and must not discuss their feelings. As a man who has battled depression, I found my situation hard to remedy. I believed I should not need the help of others, that I should be able to ignore and overcome my depression without discussing it with others. That view is still common in our society. Recently, Demar Derozan, an NBA All-star, talked openly about his struggle with depression and the lack of discussion about depression in our society. The story was carried by mainstream media outlets such as USA Today and TMZ, which is particularly telling, because it indicates these types of comments are unusual.  This blog will track the attitudinal change, or perhaps even lack thereof, of masculinity and mental illness, beginning in the early 1900s with World War 1 and PTSD. We will continue into the present day, looking especially at areas in which masculinity is publicly exercised, such as sports and politics, to trace public attitudes.

In his article on the intersection of war, masculinity, and trauma, Mark Humphries tells the story of Hunter L., a private in the Canadian military who was sent home after suffering ‘shellshock’ twice on tour, and not recovering properly. When Hunter experienced the symptoms of ‘shellshock’ (likely PTSD) back home, he applied for a state pension. He was denied because of doctors’ input that he had feminine attributes and likely had a predisposition for psychological issues. [1] Real men did not suffer psychological issues.

Men operate a gun in WW1.
Men fight in WW1.

By the Vietnam War, the term shellshock was out of use, now referred to as gross stress disorder in DSM I. However, the DSM II failed to recognize even gross stress disorder, giving no name for those who had suffered from trauma in Vietnam. It was not until 1980 that the DSM recognized PTSD in its current state. [2]

Our societal views of masculinity and mental health do not simply affect veterans. After surgery to remove a cancerous growth in 1985, President Ronald Reagan suffered from bouts of confusion and poor sleep. Reagan could have given the reigns to his vice president, which he did during the surgery, but retook his duties as soon as the surgery was over. Robert Gilbert argues that Reagan’s mental state may have led to the Iran-Contra crisis, primarily because Reagan let two top advisors switch positions for which neither were well-suited. Reagan himself said in later years that he might have avoided the crisis had he assigned one of the advisors elsewhere. [3] The 25th amendment, which Reagan invoked to hand off power while in surgery, should have been used for a few days, instead of the mere hours Reagan used it for. However, in an effort to look strong in front of the American people, keeping in tradition with a strong masculine president, Reagan made a poor choice that affected his mental and emotional well-being, and the course of American history.

Masculinity has clearly been a barrier to the recognition and treatment of mental illness and general mental health in the past century, but it remains an issue today. A 2011 study found that men with more masculine beliefs were half as likely to get preventive treatment than those with moderate masculine beliefs. [4] An analysis of magazine articles on mental health from the last 20 years indicated men’s mental health was significantly less frequently mentioned than women’s, and methods of coping included this gem from Men’s Health: “Sit on a lawn chair and drink a beer. You are now in touch with your primal self. Soon, you will find it easier to smile.” [5]

The present day offers some hope for destigmatization of mental illness. This hope is, unfortunately, largely concentrated in one public expression of masculinity: sports. The Players Tribune offers an online platform where athletes can tell their stories, including college athletes and retired pros. Those stories are generally personal histories or moments of triumph but have recently begun to touch on issues of mental health. Even with this platform, discussion of mental health is uneven. Baseball, despite being one of the first sports to embrace debilitating illness as not weakness, but a strength, has not progressed in discussing mental illness. Lou Gehrig was well-respected even as ALS ate away at his ability to play, which might indicate a willingness by the sport to view illness as just that: illness, and not a personal attribution of weakness. Unfortunately, discussions of mental health have not come through in baseball, and thus have done nothing to destigmatize mental illness. Football is at a crossroads, one in which mental illness plays an uncertain role. The damage to the brain sustained by playing football is undeniable, something recognized by retired players and more and more by current players. The NFL, however, has kept a short leash on players speaking out about the issue. Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the league, repeatedly refuses to speak on the issue. The NFL has few platforms that allow its players to speak, and press conferences are heavily regulated. Colin Kaepernick, once a Pro-Bowl and Super Bowl quarterback, has been blacklisted from playing because of his protest of kneeling during the national anthem. The only example of a major NFL player speaking about mental illness unrelated to brain damage is wide receiver Brandon Marshall, who has spoken at length about his borderline personality disorder. His history of run-ins with the law, even since his reveal of the diagnosis, have led to rather unfavorable coverage of him. The NFL has potential to discuss mental illness, but until players have a better platform to speak their minds, and until the culture changes in such a manner that they feel comfortable doing so, the NFL is not our best hope.

The NBA is quickly growing as a league, with viewership up 18-25% depending on the channel carrying the game. As the NFL loses viewership, the NBA may overtake it as the most popular sport in the USA. The NBA has a history of players making strong social statements, such as LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Garnett, and other superstars wearing shirts that said “I Can’t Breath” after the death of Eric Garner at the hands of New York Police. Most relevant, however, is the fact that the NBA has recently seen a trend of players discussing mental illness.

DeMar DeRozan directs traffic.
DeMar DeRozan dribbles upcourt.

DeMar DeRozan, a multiple time All-Star in the prime of his career, recently discussed his struggle with depression: “Sometimes . . . it gets the best of you, where times everything in the whole world’s on top of you… It’s not nothing I’m against or ashamed of. Now, at my age, I understand how many people go through it. Even if it’s just somebody can look at it like, ‘He goes through it and he’s still out there being successful and doing this,’ I’m OK with that.” [6] DeRozan did not go into detail about his experience with depression. He didn’t need to. He has an awareness of what this means for people looking on. This is a reinterpretation of mental illness as overcoming a barrier, instead of a debilitating condition. Now, this can also be harmful in the sense that DeRozan is someone who is clearly very talented and has been very successful in his career. No one should be held to that measure of success. However, the very fact that a physical specimen that many would think the peak of masculinity would reveal his struggles with depression is a step forward.

Kevin Love shoots.
Kevin Love shoots.

Kevin Love is the starting power forward for the Cleveland Cavaliers, an All-Star and NBA Champion. This March, he opened up on his struggle with anxiety and panic attacks, something that surprised many. In his piece, not only does Love discuss his first panic attack, but he takes time to discuss mental health as a man: “Growing up, you figure out really quickly how a boy is supposed to act. You learn what it takes to be a man.’ It’s like a playbook: Be strong. Don’t talk about your feelings. Get through it on your own. So for 29 years of my life, I followed that playbook.” [7] We all are familiar with this sentiment, and we understand it to be true. Regardless, for someone in Love’s position to say it so explicitly and acknowledge that the approach is unhealthy and unworkable is extremely beneficial towards an open discussion of how men approach mental health. Moreover, Love goes beyond discussing the stigma towards mental health and into the stigma of treatment: “So for 29 years, I thought about mental health as someone else’s problem. Sure, I knew on some level that some people benefited from asking for help or opening up. I just never thought it was for me. To me, it was form of weakness that could derail my success in sports or make me seem weird or different.” [8] A form of weakness. We’ve all heard this before, it is a common trope among men dealing with any issue that requires assistance. Men don’t ask for directions, and we certainly don’t see therapists. Except Love did. Much of the piece details what it felt like to have a panic attack, but even more discusses the fallout: how difficult it was to tell teammates, how scared Love was that they would view him as lesser, and his experience with a therapist. Throughout, he continues to reference the playbook of masculinity and how much of an obstacle it was to confronting that he needed help.

The best hope for destigmatizing mental health among men resides in public figures of masculinity speaking publicly about their experiences. Love mentions DeRozan in his piece, which has led to subsequent pieces by former players, such as former NBA player Keyon Dooling talking about his experience being sexually assaulted as a child and its psychological effects years later. When men engaged in peak practices of stereotypical masculinity, such as physical dominance and competition, speak openly about mental health, it becomes a legitimate topic of discussion for men instead of a skeleton in the closet. In fact, these revelations by DeRozan and Love have already sparked an NBA-sponsored commercial and website for mental health. Two NBA All-Stars discussing these issues is hardly a culture change, but it could very well be the start of one if other public figures of masculinity join in. As Royce White – a former NBA player plagued by anxiety – has indicated, we must not become complacent with this progress, but rather use it to truly confront the stigma of mental health for masculine individuals. [9]


[1] Mark Humphries. “War’s Long Shadow: Masculinity, Medicine, and the Gendered Politics of Trauma, 1914–1939.” The Canadian Historical Review 91, no. 3 (2010): 505-506.

[2] Marc-Antoine Crocq and Louis Crocq, “From Shell Shock and War Neurosis to Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A History of Psychotraumatology” Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience 2, no. 1 (2000): 53.

[3] Robert Gilbert, “The Politics of Presidential Illness: Ronald Reagan and the Iran-Contra Scandal” Politics and The Life Sciences 33, no. 2 (2014): 62.

[4] Kristen Springer and Dawne Mouzon, ““Macho Men” and Preventative Health Care: Implications for Older Men in Different Social Class” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 52, no. 2 (2011): 212.

[5] Juanne Clarke and Rachelle Miele, “Trapped by Gender: The Paradoxical Portrayal of Gender and Mental Illness in Anglo North American Magazines” Women’s Studies International Forum 56, (2016): 5.

[6] Doug Smith, “Raptors’ Derozan Hopes Honest Talk on Depression Helps Others.” The Toronto Star, (2017).

[7] Kevin Love, “Everyone is Going Through Something.” The Players Tribune, (2017).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Julie Kliegman, “The State of Mental Health Care in the NBA” The Ringer, (2018).

Further Reading:

Furman, Richard. Social Work Practice with Men at Risk. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010).

Addis, M., & Cohane, G. “Social Scientific Paradigms of Masculinity and Their Implications For Research and Practice in Men’s Mental Health”. Journal of Clinical Psychology 61, no. 6 (2005): 633-647.

Broverman, I. K., Broverman, D. M., Clarkson, F. E., Rosenkrantz, P. S., & Vogel, S. R. “Sex-role Stereotypes and Clinical Judgments of Mental Health.” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 34, no. 1 (1970): 1-7.