The Rising Mental Health Crisis for Boys
While working towards her PhD in counseling at Harvard in the late 80's, Niobe Way was struck by how frequently boys told her during sessions that they wished they had better friendships.
Decades later, now a professor of developmental psychology at NYU and author of "Deep Secrets: Boys' Friendships and the Crisis of Connection", Dr. Way has interviewed over a thousand boys and found that little has changed. She discovered that boys tend to distance themselves from their peers as they age, even though they desire connections –all because of social stigmas, "The culture of hyper masculinity makes it harder for boys to form relationships, and that leads to a crisis of connection."*
In her book, one high school boy confided and expressed an all-too-common sentiment, "I feel pretty lonely and sometimes depressed... because I don’t have no one to go out with, no one to speak on the phone, no one to tell my secrets. I tried to look for a person, you know, but it’s not that easy."*
While the teenage years have been widely acknowledged as a time for heightened emotions and critical development, teens now seem to struggle more than ever -–especially boys.
One study revealed that rates of depression increased by 52% in teens from 2005 to 2017; and in 2019, 70% of teens reported depression and anxiety as major problems. For boys, in particular, an alarming rise in suicides (especially among older teens, 15 & older) started in 2000. Boys die by suicide three to four times more than girls do.
Although there's not one cause, educators and psychologists point to two reasons that can leave teens feeling vulnerable and isolated: increased pressure to succeed in school and growing reliance on technology (a situation made worse by the Covid pandemic). Experts say that boys struggle more than girls as they have fewer coping tools to deal with stressors and emotions, and they're less likely to get the help they need. Boys are more prone to alienate themselves or lash out in unhealthy ways without the means to process emotions effectively.
Dr. Way says in her book, “Our expectations and stereotypes of boys are preventing us from seeing boys—their social and emotional desires and capacities—in broad daylight. The consequences of such disconnection and blindness are evident in the statistics suggesting a ‘boy crisis."*
Don't Just Talk About It
Phyllis Fagell, school counselor in Washington, DC who runs support groups for boys, says that many boys -although certainly not all- have trouble talking openly about their feelings and emotions because socials norms and expectations lead them to conform to a masculine image that promotes values like toughness, stoicism, and competitiveness. In contrast, compassion and generosity are seen as feminine traits and therefore deemed as threat to their socially-constructed image.
These social pressures, beginning at a very young age, deprive boys of emotional vocabulary and self-awareness to identify and process their feelings. Instead, they're unlikely to seek help from peers or an adult when they struggle. Despite the increase in depression among teens in general, a recent study showed that only 1/3 of boys aged 12 to 17 sought help for depression in the past year (2020), compared with 45% of girls.
Even when boys have the emotional language and recognize the flaws in social norms, still they conceal their emotions to fit in. According to Fagell, who wrote “Middle School Matters”, this can take a major toll on their mental health. Referring to the high rates of mental health issues in teens, she said, "If you are expending energy to pretend you’re something that you are not, if you are constantly faking it, that contributes to anxiety and depression."*
Boys & Outbursts
Experts assert that when boys can't express emotions in a healthy way, they either act out with anger/violence or become depressed. According to Melissa Holland, CSU professor of school psychology, boys are prone to externalize their problems with outbursts, anger, or even violence. Data reveals, for instance, that boys are twice more likely to get into physical fights than girls. Oftentimes, instead of an exploration of the cause of the behavior, these outbursts are dealt with punishment by schools and parents being unfair and biased -–in particular for students of color and with disabilities.
Because boys tend to be deficient in emotional vocabulary -–or don't feel free to express emotions-– their behavior becomes their means of communication, Fagell explains. “When a boy is acting out or is disrespectful, instead of personalizing it, we have to target their behaviors and not assault their character.”*
Create Spaces For Boys To Connect With Boys
While boys are generally reluctant to talk to a therapist without prodding, one way to grow their emotional muscles is through affinity support groups at school. Research shows this to be an effective tool for mitigating the impacts of trauma and distress. In these groups, boys can start by discussing superficial issues and common interests, until they progress to discussing the pressures of growing up as a boy.
So, there is hope. Boys can benefit when we foster a culture that:
confronts deep-rooted masculine stereotypes,
creates opportunities to connect with other boys,
de-stigmatizes mental health issues, and
provides support through adults who understand their needs.
It's crucial to build quality relationships with teens to help overcome social barriers and common stigma that boys/males tend to experience.
If you or a young boy you know is struggling, JarvisHypnotherapy can offer the help you need.
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