Certain masculinity tropes are implanted and imprinted into the minds of African males from a very young age in many African cultures. These masculine stereotypes about what it means to be a man are rapidly internalized by the male gender, reflecting the influence of society. As mental health becomes more freely discussed in many areas of the world, it becomes more apparent that the internalization of masculinity standards among African men has made them more vulnerable to mental health problems. I am to explore masculinity tropes and the cultural factors that stigmatize mental health in African societies. In addition to this, I will also discuss some of the factors that limit access to mental health treatment and self-care options for men in Africa.
Men tend to repress or restrict their sensibility as a side effect of internalizing stereotypes about masculinity. In many African societies, admitting to being anxious or depressed is viewed as a sign of being weak. As a result, many men in African communities engage in harmful defensive coping methods to avoid looking emotional or sensitive. Consequently, males in African societies hide or downplay their mental health issues and status due to patriarchal and conventional views (Ezeugwu and Ojedokun 1). It is crucial to explore how tropes of masculinity are generated culturally and socially to understand the link between masculinity tropes and African men’s mental health. According to the operations director at the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag), Cassey Chambers (qtd. in Mkele);
Stigmas surrounding mental health pose a major stumbling block when it comes to treating the disease in South Africa. In isiZulu, there is not even a word for ‘depression’ —it’s basically not deemed a real illness in the African culture (Mkele).
In African culture, there is a widespread belief that Africans do not suffer from depression, which is analogous to the belief that Africans do not have mental health issues (Ezeugwu and Ojedokun 3). Depression, in particular, is frequently viewed as a reflection of emotional weakness, and men who exhibit primary symptoms of depression, such as helplessness or worthlessness, are regarded as weaklings (Ezeugwu and Ojedokun 3). According to Boahene (qtd. in Ezeugwu and Ojedokun), African societies respect African proverbs as the foundation of societal and cultural wisdom, therefore in these cultures, proverbs socially establish the gender norms that are psychologically established (Ezeugwu and Ojedokun2). Sayings and oral traditions are utilized in African societies to perpetuate a patriarchal society, gender roles, and extreme tropes of masculinity and femininity.
According to traditional ideologies and male ideals, men in African culture are expected to be courageous, noble, emotionally intelligent, and powerful and therefore must not be illogical or emotional in the face of hardships or upsetting circumstances (Ezeugwu and Ojedokun 3). Gender-based expectations, originating from cultural views about how gender is constructed, are commonly seen as contributing factors in the emergence of various mental illnesses in African men (Ezeugwu and Ojedokun 3). Gender roles are socially constructed to emphasize socially established hierarchies; they also create a set of expectations as they set the standard for specific duties, obligations and tasks that a person is expected to uphold habitually (Ezeugwu and Ojedokun 2). For example, traditional gender roles in African culture imply that a man has to be the provider, protector, and generally the strong one in the family.
Gender roles suggest that all community members are expected to ‘play their role’ (Ezeugwu and Ojedokun 2), a concept reinforced and conveyed through various sources, including media and religion. However, because of its far-reaching consequences, this concept may be harmful in certain ways. According to Ezeugwu and Ojedokun, “The challenge with the role play assumption is that it does not consider the actor’s behavioural or emotional exhaustion, which in turn leads to role conflict and decreased psychological well-being” (2). Men might feel less anxious and despondent about their self-identification as men if gender norms were modernized to fit the current age’s expectations. Instead, when gender expectations are imposed too strictly, men are put under a great deal of stress, which severely influences their mental health. Furthermore, because mental illness and emotionality in men are stigmatized, many African men are unable to articulate/express their feelings and have less access to informal, friendly spaces in which they can vent and release their emotions.
A report by Fast et al. (qtd. in Ezeugwu and Ojedokun) stated that when men are unable to meet societal expectations of being the provider and the psychologically strong one, they feel a feeling of failure, which leads to substance abuse, which exacerbates depressive symptoms and suicidal thoughts (Ezeugwu, and Ojedokun 3). Men’s rejection or denial of their mental health status is dangerous and, allowing such a high degree of emotional accumulation is usually a prescription for catastrophe. Men use healthcare services less frequently than women to satisfy social expectations that place a great deal of stress on them, and as a result, they are more prone to a damaging definition of manhood. Gross and Levenson (qtd. in Ezeugwu, and Ojedokun) conceptualize restrictive emotionality as; “the state of being unable to express one’s feelings or and difficulty in finding words to express one’s emotional state due to fear” (1). This difficulty to express one’s emotional state could, in some cases, manifest destructively or violently because certain emotional conditions are more acceptable for men to express than others, for example, anger, it is not uncommon for women to have to bear the brunt of untreated or unaddressed mental illness in a man in the form of domestic violence.
Government leaders in Africa pay little attention to mental health concerns; according to Chika RemigiousEzeugwu and Oluyinka Ojedokun, other contagious and communicable diseases, poverty, and malnutrition are all contributing factors for why policymakers may fail to give full attention to the mental health crisis (2). The researchers also pointed out that the difficulties are made worse by people’s poor overall health and the underdeveloped health sector, which places mental health at the bottom of the health hierarchy (Ezeugwu and Ojedokun 3). A lack of understanding of the scope of mental health issues, stigma towards individuals who live with mental illness, and erroneous ideas that mental disorders are incurable are all contributory variables that lead to mental health concerns being overlooked by many African policymakers (Lund). Yet, there are several reasons why Africa should emphasize the mental health sector, namely, because Africa is a continent afflicted by serious socioeconomic difficulties, especially poverty.
An article by Crick Lund, a professor at the University of Cape Town in the Alan J. Flisher Centre for Public Mental Health, Department of Psychiatry and Mental Health, describes the link between poverty and mental illness as being cyclical. Lund explains that poverty increases the likelihood of mental illness; this occurs as a result of malnourishment and economic instability, as well as increased trauma, sickness/injury, and a lack of means to soften the impact of these occurrences (Lund). Due to increased healthcare costs, incapacity, and discrimination, living with a mental illness can lead to poverty (Lund). It is also crucial to highlight that some circumstances limit men’s options for mental health therapy and self-care, one of which is the reality that limited access to treatment poses a severe threat in overcoming the mental health crisis throughout Africa. According to Crick Lund, “The ‘treatment gap’ – the proportion of people with mental illness who don’t get treatment – ranges from 75% in South Africa to more than 90% in Ethiopia and Nigeria” (Lund). Prioritizing mental health has various benefits, including improved health, assistance in tackling socioeconomic difficulties, economic rewards, and reduced human rights violations (Lund).
The indisputable absorption of masculinity tropes determined by the socio-cultural environment predisposes African males to mental health issues (Ezeugwu and Ojedokun 3). African leaders must stress the necessity of prioritizing mental health. Partly because doing so would be immensely beneficial, not just to the continent’s social development but also to the continent’s economic growth. Many of the continent’s growth initiatives, such as poverty reduction, education goals, equitable development, and increased employment, would be difficult to achieve if mental health is not prioritized (Lund).
Image: South African illustrator Loyiso Mkize’s mixed media portraits