Masculinity is what we make it, says Samaritans' CEO
Society’s expectations of masculinity pile the pressure on men, which can be a factor in the high male suicide figures, Samaritans CEO Ruth Sutherland told the Cambridge Union Debate this evening. Three times as many men as women take their own lives and working class, middle aged men are most at risk, said Ruth. It is stereotyped narrow beliefs about masculinity that cause problems, not masculinity itself, she added.
Speaking against the motion This House Believes Masculinity is Harmful to Everyone, Ruth said: “Culture is very powerful and can have a major effect on you as an individual. Every six seconds someone contacts Samaritans, and if the caller is a man, his belief in what a man is and how he behaves, is often part of his distress. “The point is not that men are necessarily doing things wrong, but that the gender expectations that we all heap on men aren’t always helpful for their mental health,” she said.
“By freeing up what it is to be masculine or feminine we could liberate ourselves, others and society as a whole. And we also need to celebrate the spectrum of masculinity. The gay and trans communities also demonstrate what it means to be a man, or a parent, or a romantic partner,” Ruth said.
Andie, a Samaritans supporter who has made the transition from male to female, said: “As a woman I can be freer with my emotions. Showing emotion is an invitation to another person to ask if I am okay, and then I can respond. We might both cry and then we can comfort each other. I can cry if I let myself cry. It’s liberating. “As a man you are still expected to “tough it out”. You are allowed to be angry, raucously happy or moody, but not to be emotional in showing vulnerability, or weakness, because men feel embarrassed. The idea that the masculine response is always strong and resilient is still there.”
As a society, we need to promote positive ideas about masculinity, Ruth said. Tailoring interventions to men’s needs is another way of moving forward, as services are often described as woman or child friendly, but not man friendly. Samaritans is looking at delivering support through instant messaging or SMS as some people find it easier to communicate that way, Ruth said. “Samaritans is not here to single-handedly to challenge traditional concepts of masculinity. Our services are there for anyone. Some men who contact us may have views of masculinity that are profoundly different to that which I – or the listening volunteer they are speaking to – regard as helpful. Our listening service is there to listen, not to change men,” Ruth said. The motion was carried with 51 in favour and 19 against.
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Notes to editors:
- Anyone can call Samaritans, you don’t have to be suicidal. Whatever you’re going through, call us for free any time from any phone on 116 123 (this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill), email email@example.com, or visit www.samaritans.org to find details of your nearest branch.
- Samaritans responds to more than 5.3 million calls for help every year, offering emotional support by phone, email, text and face to face in its 201 branches across the UK and Republic of Ireland. For more information please see www.samaritans.org.
- It’s the public’s kind donations and more than 21,000 trained volunteers that mean Samaritans is always there for anyone struggling to cope. Find out how you can support us: http://www.samaritans.org/supp
- Photo credit ©Chris Williamson