The pressure to conform to “rigid, narrow, and restrictive” gender roles causes young men in South Africa to turn to suicide and self-harm, a new study has found.
The study, which appeared in the latest South African Journal of Psychology, suggests that the inability to conform to ideas of masculinity results in “inauthentic” emotional expression, and feelings of disconnection, embarrassment and shame.
In some cases it led to risky behaviour, aggression, and violence. Researchers conducted in-depth interviews with young men from a variety of races and cultures, between the ages of 20 and 25.
Participants were asked about their perceptions about social contributors to suicidal behaviour.
Findings suggest that young men at times do not relate “authentically” to people because of gender norms.
“The gender regime in South Africa prescribes that men should restrict their displays of emotion, silence their fears, and hide their sadness”, forcing them to “suffer in silence”. In addition, participants believed that showing “vulnerability” was associated with being feminine, and “equated with being gay”.
Furthermore, seeking formal support, such as psychological help, is seen as a weakness.
Young men rather “ignore and deny their problems, or engage in other self-destructive behaviours such as excessively using alcohol or drugs – or being aggressive and violent”.
Co-author Dr Jason Bantjes said that while the gender regime was part of the “fabric” of society, there were measures the country could take to begin to disrupt it.
“We could start by challenging the myth that there is only one way to be a man – there are many ways to achieve manhood and no one way of expressing one’s masculinity is inherently better or worse than any other,” he said.
“We should not tolerate the use of pejorative terms and gender slurs like fag or sissy”.
Bantjes added that these principles could be used to change how parents raised boys: “It might be helpful for parents to teach young boys how to give and receive help and how to communicate their distress without having to act it out.”
He said emotional and relationship skills needed to be developed in boys, as they were in girls.
“We need to find ways to help young men express difficult emotions like anger and shame in ways that do not endanger their health.
“We need to stop seeing suicidal behaviour simply as a psychiatric condition, and start to appreciate that there are socio-cultural factors, Bantjes said.