3.2 Gender and young people's mental health
The discussion of eating disorders and schooling in Section 2 suggested that gendered relations of power, both in an institution such as a secondary school and in society at large, could contribute to the development of particular health problems for some groups of young people. The article by Evans et al. (2004) presented young people's wellbeing as strongly gendered, in that instance to the disadvantage of young women.
There is evidence that young women suffer disproportionately not only from anorexia and other eating disorders, but also from a range of mental health problems. As a review of the literature by the former Health Development Agency (HDA, now part of NICE, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence) concludes, ‘gender plays a significant role in mental health issues’ (HDA, 2001, p. 35). Based on research evidence, the HDA suggests that young women are twice as likely to suffer from a depressive illness as young men, despite the fact that most recent media coverage and policy concern has focused on the increase in depression among young men.
Deliberate self harm is four times more common in women than men, and much more common among younger than older adults. The HDA concludes that, in general, more young women than young men experience mental health ‘disorders’, although it acknowledges that the statistical differences are not enormous and may depend to some extent on how a ‘disorder’ is defined.
However, young men are disproportionately represented in the reporting of certain mental health problems. They are three times more likely to be dependent on alcohol or drugs than young women, and what is termed ‘conduct disorder’ (persistent bad behaviour) is twice as common among young men, with those who are in prison, homeless or unemployed being particularly vulnerable.
Much recent attention has focused on the apparent rise in suicide among young men. According to the HDA, the figures for suicide in the population as a whole have been going down in recent years. However, the period since the 1980s has seen a decline among women generally but a rise among men, with a significant increase in the 15–44 age group (HDA, 2001, p. 38). According to the Men's Health Forum, suicide is now the commonest cause of death in men aged under 35 in England, with suicide rates for men aged 15–24 more than doubling since 1971 (Men's Health Forum, 2002, p. 1).
Activity 5 Gender and the risk of suicide
Why do you think rates of suicide might now be higher among young men than young women? Make a list of any possible reasons that occur to you.
According to the HDA: ‘Surprisingly little has been written about maleness in relation to the incidence of suicide among young men’ (HDA, 2001, p. 39). However, some explanations have been advanced by researchers, and the range of arguments offered is surveyed below.
An explanation might be found in the dislocation felt by young men at a time of rapid social change:
Changing patterns of employment, altered gender relations, new discourses of masculinity or femininity may undermine young men's sense of certainty and security, particularly when these are seen to damage opportunities for economic independence … significant numbers of young men may need more support in finding their way on this rapidly changing terrain, and statistics on young men's suicide indicate that there is much work to be done to contain growing problems.
(Bradford and Urquhart, 1998, cited in HDA, 2001, p. 39)
Other writers have suggested a link between higher rates of suicide and the nature of young masculinity itself. According to Debbi Stanistreet:
in a culture that encourages men to obtain mastery over their environment, risk-taking behaviour may be construed as a popular operational definition of man's maleness. This type of behaviour may manifest itself in several different ways, including reckless driving, excessive drug use or, in a more overt form, commonly defined as suicide.
(Stanistreet, 1996, cited in HDA, 2001, p. 40)
This argument sees young male suicide not primarily as a response to depression but as an extreme form of adolescent risk-taking behaviour.
Another possible explanation is that young men are less likely than young women to articulate their problems. According to the Men's Health Forum, research shows ‘that men are not good at seeking help, and that male inexpressiveness leads to a reluctance in seeking medical or psychological help’ (Men's Health Forum, 2002, p. 3). Masculinity researchers such as Frosh et al. (2002) and Mac an Ghaill (1994) have identified a culture within young men's peer groups that discourages emotional openness and shuts down the possibilities for sharing personal problems.
Shildrick et al. (2005) found evidence of an unwillingness to seek counselling or psychiatric help among the socially excluded young men they interviewed in Teesside. They cite this quotation from Max, 28, who had lost friends in a car crash:
Oh it was f*ckin’ bad. I'm glad that I'm working and that now, cos me head would be up me arse if I wasn't working like … All the shit I've had in me life, it's my mates that have got me through it. There's a lot of people who say, have you seen a counsellor? You know with the crash. I'm like, no I don't f*ckin’ need counselling, you know what I mean?
(Shildrick et al., 2005, p. 14)