Self Care is for Men, too; Toxic Masculinity and Mental Health

An academic colleague of mine recently criticized the content on my blog without reading it. He felt that no one would care about my recent posts on mental health topics such as How to Relax, 5 Minute Self Care, and Seasonal Depression, even though recent research shows that 61% of college students are at risk for clinical depression during the pandemic (also cited in The Washington Post).

Another study suggested that the rate of high to moderate distress in college students was as high as 85%. Part of the reason for this discrepancy might include the fact that “risk of clinical depression” and “rate of distress” are not the same thing, and the fact that the researchers used different study methods and somewhat different study populations.

Let that sink in for a moment. If you are a college student, you are more likely to be depressed right now than to be thriving. Your colleagues and friends are, too.

Major institutions and news outlets have also reported on mental health issues in college students during the pandemic. The Washington Post is talking about the explosion of student mental health difficulties. Top institutions like UNC Research and Boston University are writing about it. PBS News Hour and Inside Higher Ed have documented it too. Even without these sources, it doesn’t take a genius to understand why a global pandemic is making people depressed.

Why, then, did my articles on mental health make my colleague so angry? Several of my female friends love my work, so I didn’t think it was a content quality problem. News media and academic research also support my instincts about college content; students don’t need another article on how to raise an A- to an A right now. College students are facing life and death reality of the pandemic, and they deserve support.

So I wondered if there was a social reason for his anger.

Let’s review, for a moment, the ways men are rewarded and penalized socially.

According to David M. Mayer at Harvard Business Review,

“Research demonstrates that men too face backlash when they don’t adhere to masculine gender stereotypes — when they show vulnerability, act nicer, display empathy, express sadness, exhibit modesty, and proclaim to be feminists. This is troubling not least because it discourages men from behaving in ways known to benefit their teams and their own careers.” (Mayer, 2018).

For example, when men show vulnerability,

“An informative set of studies from 2015 finds that when male (but not female) leaders ask for help, they are viewed as less competent, capable, and confident. And when men make themselves vulnerable by disclosing a weakness at work, they are perceived to have lower status.” (Mayer, 2018)

Men are also punished for displays of emotion:

“A study from 2017 found that men who cry at work are perceived as more emotional and less competent than women who cry. And when men cry in response to performance feedback, the feedback provider rates them as a lower performer, less likely to get promoted, and less capable, as compared to women who cry.” (Mayer, 2018)

This phenomenon is particularly problematic for men with mental health issues, because their gender performance is often at odds with their emotional needs. Sometimes, you just need to cry. And that’s okay.

My point is not that men have it harder than women in the workplace (or that only two genders exist!). I’m asserting that men are punished when they don’t adhere to masculine stereotypes, including being vulnerable. This is a problem for male college students who are struggling and may prevent them from seeking help.

Let’s get one thing clear. Anyone can suffer from mental health issues. Mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD are also more common when people face extreme stressors such as a global pandemic.

Accessing Mental Health Care for Men

If you are struggling, seeking help at your campus mental health center or with a local psychologist, psychiatrist, or LCSW in your community can help. Your primary care doctor is also a resource for prescribing mood medication or talking to you about your options. Be aware, though, that while a primary care doctor is a great place to start, they likely won’t have the time to have multiple weekly or biweekly appointments over a period of weeks, months or years, so if you are having serious mental health difficulty, your team should also involve a mental health care specialist.

Self Care Ideas for Men

In addition to prompt and competent medical care, there are things you can do to feel better. And yes, the things that will help you survive burnout and depression are self care.

The very behaviors that society tells you not to do – being vulnerable, asking for help, building social contacts, indulging in safe self care behaviors – are the things you should be doing. They are not a substitute for medical care, but they do supplement it, and most therapists recommend frequently engaging in activities you enjoy.

For athletic men: jogging, weight-lifting, or other outdoor activity. If you want to work out and are short on space, try isometric exercises using your own body weight, or try some heavy resistance bands.

For artistic men: coloring books, painting, drawing, or journaling

For men who like to travel: learn a language or plan a trip for after the pandemic ends

For men who have a lot to say: journaling, writing short stories, or even writing a book

For musical men: practice or learn an instrument

For men who live in an apartment: seriously, take a magnesium bath. Don’t argue with me. I get it, you’re too tough for baths. But you know what? They feel good. Even if you’re a dude. Hot water is nice, and we tend to lose magnesium under stress. This is especially awesome for athletes or people who work out. So rock it like Gwenyth Paltrow. I won’t tell anyone – not because you should be ashamed, but because that bath will feel so good you’ll tell everyone yourself.

Try it. I dare you.


Searing, Linda. “The Big Number: Up to 90 percent rise in depression among college students in pandemic’s early months, study finds.” The Washington Post:

Mayer, David M. “How Men Get Punished for Straying from Masculine Norms.” Harvard Business Review:

Cahn, Megan. “You Can Have the Same Nightly Ritual as Gwenyth Paltrow.” Elle:

Guintella, Osea, Kelly Hyde, Silvia Saccardo, and Sally Sadoff. “Lifestyle and mental health disruptions during COVID-19.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America:

“Pandemic Worsens Depression, Anxiety Among First-Year College Students.” UNC Research:

Fruehwirth, Jane Cooley, Siddhartha Biswas, and Krista M. Perreira. “The Covid-19 pandemic and mental health of first-year college students: Examining the effect of Covid-19 stressors using longitudinal data.” PLOS ONE:

Jahnke, Art. “In College Students, COVID-19 Has Increased Depression Rate and Raised New Barriers to Mental Health Care.” The Brink (Boston University):

Anderson, Greta. Mental Health Needs Rise With Pandemic. Inside Higher Ed:

Sreenivasan, Hari, Jason Kane, and Alison Thoet. “How the pandemic is impacting college students’ mental health.” PBS News Hour:

Gupta, Sujata. The COVID-19 pandemic made U.S. college students’ mental health even worse. Science News:

Photo Credits: Image by Nathan McDine (“boys get sad too” sweatshirt, @nathanmcdine).

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