The mental health needs of men and boys

March 14, 2015

The mental health needs of men and boys are undertreated. They are underappreciated. They are frequently misunderstood. Most of the world’s cultures often promote and have for centuries promoted instructing men and boys to keep their feelings to themselves, and in current American society, men and boys frequently hear the presumably well-meaning command, “Man up!”

Certainly, male and female brains and bodies differ in some critical ways. However, the feelings and behaviors of men and boys stem from their brain and body patterning, as they do in girls and women.

Just like females, males have brains and bodies. Just like in females, the male brain develops neural connections that control the functioning of the brain and body throughout life. Just like in females, the neural connectivity in the brains of males undergoes a dramatic burst of development and activity in the first years of life. Just like in females, this patterning controls behavior, feeling, activity, and experience throughout life.

Scientific evidence is now demonstrating that experience becomes embedded in human genes and that early life experiences affect the expression of genes. The signatures written on the genes through experience can be temporary or enduring and can even be passed down through the generations. This genetic composition is another level at which our brains and bodies control our experiences and behaviors throughout life. Of course, this happens in both males and females.

Evidence, including the groundbreaking Adverse Childhood Experiences Study out of Kaiser Permanente (“the ACE Study”), has also shown that adverse childhood experiences which may include things like divorce, childhood neglect, parental mental health issues, among other things, affect physical health, including even leading to an increased risk for cancer.

As is finally becoming more widely recognized in the United States, including through a new campaign by the First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama, mental health is as important as physical health and is irretrievably interconnected with physical health. Public understanding is behind and has not kept up with the recent evidence.

The mind is a part of the body, a fundamental part.

The male brain and body developed with some different patterning than the female brain and body. Historically and traditionally, men tended to be the hunters, while women’s brains and bodies developed to nurture their young optimally closer to home. Men’s brain architecture continued for generations to support behavior that was optimal for that need. When hunting, men tended to be quieter to keep from warning their prey, they tended to be more likely to be exposed to physical violence and thus tended to develop protection from reactivity to pain, including perhaps patterns that provide more of a capacity for compartmentalizing their pain, they may have been away from home longer when searching for food and thus may have developed patterning that supported less sentimentality and attachment to the women and children they love. These patterns are in line with the classic command, “Man up!”

However, society is developing and changing. In modern industrialized society, hunting is mostly unnecessary. Food production is now business. Men often go out into a structured and/or intellectualized workforce that is part of a large complex and organized civilization. Men still have more flexibility to be out of the home during childrearing years, as women are the ones who physically carry a child and breastfeed. However, female and male roles are evolving significantly.

The human mind and body is meant to evolve with changing conditions. Its amazing complexity adapts to evolution. As society has become more industrialized and intellectualized, the human mind and body gradually develop to support its optimal functioning under new environments. It happens gradually over the generations through neuronal patterning, epigenetics, and numerous other complex incredible processes that scientists are continuing to work at trying to understand.

As nature is varied and imperfect, individuals evolve at different rates. It is here we develop our current dilemma. In modern society, optimal behavior and childrearing involves men who are capable of loving attachment. Studies have shown that children with fathers who are involved and loving have brains and bodies that develop to be stronger and healthier emotionally and cognitively. In modern society, we generally seek to minimize violence and violent behavior by males. Hunting is no longer necessary. It is now a relic. Yet the patterns in the brains and bodies of males whose social and family patterning is taking longer to change remain more emotionally detached and more likely to engage in violence.

With increased male involvement in the home, the brains of the children of these fathers develop with more intellectual capacity, with stronger, healthier, more efficient neural connections through which signals travel more efficiently. The command, “Man up!” in this context makes little sense. It is a relic.

In addition, because nature is complex and imperfect (however amazing and beautiful), all this change and development has caused numerous problems and concerns. Change involves friction. In families and societies with numerous absent fathers and a high degree of violence, mental health issues are rampant. In families and societies where this process is at a more advanced stage, there is nonetheless friction through change.

In our modern world, it is time for men and boys to heal. Explosive anger and violence has little benefit anymore. We now know that war is a lose-lose proposition. No one wins through violence. No one wins through dysfunctional brain patterning. No one wins through pain and insensitivity. We all win through optimal social health and cooperation.

Public understanding needs to be brought in line with the evidence. The general public needs to see that the mental health needs of boys are a critical part of their health and well-being, as they are for girls. As in getting treatment for a physical illness, there should be no shame in addressing one’s mental health needs.

In fact, it is critical to actively develop systems and processes, including appropriately allocated funding, to ensuring the mental health needs of our population are addressed. In line with what research is showing, our governments need to allocate large amounts of funding to the development of the most effective mental health services and to their implementation.

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