Is our attitude towards masculinity killing men?

The other day I was facilitating a men’s group at Mudita House in Penzance, a charming space that’s used for therapy and meditation, and came across a book in its library called The Warrior Within: Accessing The Knight In The Male Psyche. It was published in 1992, at the height of the men’s movement, an awakening of the ancient spirit of masculinity in which men tried to understand themselves outside the context of modernity. The authors, Jungian psychoanalyst Robert Moore, a co-founder of the men’s movement, and mythologist Douglas Gillette, look at the aggressive energy of the male psyche’s inner warrior in a non-judgemental way.

Here is an excerpt: “In the warrior’s aggressive energy, men discover their drive for daily life, career, and social contact. Perseverance and fidelity are products of the warrior’s determination. With a growing sense of what masculinity entails, many men are today recovering their birthright warrior energy, empowering themselves, and offering a plan for personal empowerment to others. Today’s male warriors are pledging their loyalty to metapersonal concerns: their workplaces, communities, and families.”

Yet a look at UK suicide rates (75% were male in 2016) would suggest that sadly many men have not connected with these inner resources. Since the 90s mainstream culture has problematised the archetypal masculine qualities like assertiveness, to the point where boys and men are routinely criticised for not being more like females. Instead of understanding and nurturing the potentially pro-social force of the archetypal masculine warrior we prefer to dismiss as ‘toxic’ anything that looks too masculine.

Ironically, this misunderstanding produces more destructive behaviour, not less. The male initiation rites that were universal in indigenous cultures were a way of harnessing the potentially destructive energy of the masculine psyche for the good of the group. If we want to try and do that today, or at least catch the men who are getting close to the edge, a good starting point is a chapter in the Palgrave Handbook of Male Psychology and Mental Health (2019) called From Stereotypes to Archetypes: An Evolutionary Perspective on Male Help-Seeking and Suicide. By coincidence I happened to be reading this at the same time as the book I mentioned above.

Here are the author Martin Seager’s credentials, before I go on:
• consultant clinical psychologist and adult psychotherapist
• former head of psychological services in two NHS trusts
• former branch consultant to the Central London Samaritans and adviser to the National Samaritans
• formed a national advisory group for the Health Secretary
• adviser on mental health and psychology to the College of Medicine
• co-founder of the Male Psychology Network and the annual Male Psychology Conference at University College London
• inaugural chair of the new Male Psychology Section of the British Psychological Society (meeting this summer for the first time), which he fought for 10 years to establish

Seager believes it’s hard to change the biological drivers of masculine archetypes but much easier to change our judgemental attitudes to them if we want to help men. Those with what is currently a mainstream view of men, who take a social constructionist view of gender and downplay or deny biological drivers, won’t like this. Seager spells it out:

Within human beings perhaps the most obvious universal patterns of sexual difference are:
(1) Beauty, attraction and glamour (including body adornment)
(2) Bearing and nurturance of new-born infants and young children
(1) Physical protection (strength)
(2) Risk-taking

These universal patterns can be seen in the way males take risks in order to protect and provide for their families and communities, right up to today, says Seager, when 96% of workplace deaths in Great Britain are male — “it makes obvious sense in evolutionary terms to prioritise the survival of the female gender that physically carries the precious and vulnerable offspring”.

He goes on: “Across all cultures and throughout all known history, women and children have received the collective protection of men. These differences cannot be random. When individual men hide their own personal vulnerability, therefore, they are in effect only conforming to a male archetype that is reflected in collective and unchanging societal expectations of men.”

Society takes this for granted and is therefore less empathic towards male death and injury (examples abound — he gives rough sleepers: 85% were male in 2016/17 in the UK, yet the charity Crisis doesn’t highlight gender in any of its five key principles for tackling rough sleeping. Ditto male suicide: given that the biggest risk factor is being male, you’d expect research to be dominated by studies of male psychology and behaviour, whereas the opposite is true — studies focus instead on other factors).

If there is an empathy gap, argues Seager, it follows that men will be more driven than females to kill themselves because of:
a. A greater instinct to ignore personal safety and confront danger
b. A greater instinct to protect others (and greater shame at failing to do so)
c. A lower sense of entitlement to receive help or protection from others

This also means that by understanding archetypal gender differences we can develop gender-specific solutions to male suicide. His team uses three elements of the masculine archetype:
a. Fighting and winning
b. Providing and protecting
c. Maintaining mastery and self-control
His research has found that the more people thought they needed to be fighter and winner and have control over their feelings the more suicidal they felt, whereas higher scores on family harmony, an element of the feminine archetype, predicted decreased suicidality.

The elements above are about honour and strength, and when a man feels these are missing, says Seager, he experiences the opposite states of masculine shame and failure. So trying to encourage a man to open up could risk violating deep rooted masculine instincts, possibly increasing his sense of shame and failure.

Saying to a man that strength does not matter is like saying beauty does not matter to a woman, which would violate equivalent female instincts. But we can reframe the message to fit the archetype for better clinical efficacy — here is his suggestion:
1. “By seeking help you are taking action, taking control and fighting your problems”
2. “It takes strength and courage to confront and master your problems”
or 3. “Looking after yourself means protecting your family”.

We can also listen better. Seager helped deliver training at Central London Samaritans that exposed volunteers (80% female — slightly less than the proportion of females working as counsellors and psychotherapists in the UK) to male culture and male issues such as blues music and female actors trying roles of power and responsibility in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. After a year the number of male callers abandoning calls in under five minutes had fallen from one in three to one in four (the number of women callers dropping out remained constant at one in six).

Do we have the foundation of a new approach to helping men here? It feels like it. Thank you for your work Martin Seager, let’s bring this practical knowledge about archetypes into the mainstream for the benefit of men, women and children.