Unmasking men and anger

Anger is a universal human emotion that can be seen in the facial expressions of infants as young as six months1. Despite this, anger is frequently misunderstood.

While often perceived as an extremely negative emotion, anger has evolved as an emotion to be a natural response to challenges or threats. There is nothing wrong with experiencing anger; it is part of being human. It can, however, be managed in both healthy and unhealthy ways. The way we understand and manage anger is important to our mental health, which is in turn an important regulator for our feelings of anger.

Anger and depression

Anger is sometimes referred to as a secondary emotion – in other words, feelings of anger may mask other underlying emotions like fear or sadness2. Some research indicates that ‘acting out’ through anger and irritability may be how some men cope with depression, especially when connected to emotions of stress or shame.3,4,5 Though this may be challenging for their loved ones, expressions of anger are often neglected as a symptom associated with depression, and may lead to some of these men being overlooked or misdiagnosed.6 Understanding anger better, then, is vital to provide a fuller picture of men’s mental health.

Anger and men

The way men experience and express anger may be informed, in part, by societal expectations – that is, the ways in which men have been traditionally expected to behave. These traditional notions of masculinity tend to favour strength, stoicism, dominance and control. Though these are not inherently negative traits, rigidly adhering to them could result in a negative impact on men’s mental health7,8,9 and often means that men are more reluctant to express concerns about their mental health and access services.10,11 Men may also be more likely to deny that they have a mental health problem in a display of ‘stoicism’.3 As a result, men may be less likely than women to seek help from mental health professionals.12

As these traditional behaviours are very much linked to our culture, parents and teachers have an important role to play when supporting boys growing up. Identifying the causes behind behaviours among boys perceived as problematic, may go a long way towards nurturing healthy adult men.

Promoting positive anger expression

Anger is a natural emotion and an acceptable feeling and response to situations that threaten our survival or psychological integrity. It is healthy to express your angry feelings in an assertive, respectful way13 and, in certain situations, anger may be the most appropriate response. Given that anger is a socially acceptable emotion for men, and there is a lot of social reinforcement for being angry, it is important not to be critical of anger but rather, to try to understand the message that underlies it.

It is also a good idea to find ways to channel this energy positively to ensure that it does not have a destructive impact on yourself or others, for instance, through increased aggression. Such productive ways of channelling anger could include taking part in high-intensity sports, such as swimming, martial arts or basketball, or engaging in the arts.

What needs to be done – how can mental health services work best for men?

We need to better understand and be more aware that anger may be a sign of an underlying mental health problem. There is a lot at stake. Population-level data demonstrate that men’s mental health should be a top priority, with men in the UK being three times more likely than women to complete suicide14 and 72% of male prisoners experiencing two or more mental health problems15. Men are also more likely to be a victim of violent crime than women (2.4% of males versus 1.3% of females), and may subsequently experience anger as an emotional reaction to their experience.16

A report by the Men’s Mental Health Forum provided a wealth of advice on how to encourage men to engage in mental health services, including the importance of using ‘male-friendly’ language and providing a personal approach15. On a broader, societal level, the report indicated that the media have a responsibility to highlight positive stories about men with mental health problems that focus on recovery and hope. The setting of services is also important to consider, with safe, ‘male-friendly’ spaces, perhaps embedded in the community, having the potential to reduce mental health stigma and tackle discrimination.17

Men’s mental health services also need to take into account the type of intervention, with activity, or ‘action‐oriented’ approaches as preferred ways to engage and sustain men’s involvement.15 Direct, solution-focussed approaches may be better suited for men and prevent them from feeling as though they are surrendering their masculine identity.

And we all have a responsibility to deal in a more holistic way with these issues of masculine identity and what it means in our cultures. In the words of Frederick Douglas, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men”.

This is one of the many reasons why we have launched our new campaign 'Make it Count', because mental health is not extracurricular. Good mental health is fundamental for boys and men be able to thrive in life. If we’re not tackling mental health problems in boys early, then we risk failing the next generation right at the start of their lives.

If you want to find out more about men’s mental health, read our A-Z guide.

If you are a man experiencing mental health problems, you may find the following links helpful:  

  • CALM: Campaign against Living Miserably Campaign about fighting depression amongst young men. Helpline: 0800 58 58 58; open Sat. to Tues. 5.00m to midnight.
  • Depression Alliance: You can call for an information pack on 0845 123 23 2 Email: information@depressionalliance.org
  • Aware: An organisation based in Ireland that assists and supports those suffering from depression and their families. Telephone number: 00 353 1890 303 302  
  • Men’s Health Forum: Charity for male health in England and Wales that tackles the issues and inequalities affecting the health and well-being of men and boys. 
  • Mental Health Forum: A community where members can get mutual support, and discuss mental health policy and service development issues.  
  • Samaritans: Samaritans is a charity based in the UK and Republic of Ireland that provides confidential emotional support to any person who is suicidal or despairing. Helpline: 08457 909090 (UK) or 1850 609090 (Eire) Email: jo@samaritans.org

References:

  1. Hay, D.F. (2017) The Early Development of Human Aggression. Child Development Perspective, 11, 102–106. 
  2. Pascual-Leone, A., Gillis, P., Singh, T., & Andreescu, C. (2013). Problem anger in psychotherapy: An emotion-focused perspective on hate, rage, and rejecting anger. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, 43(2), 83–92. 
  3. Oliffe, J., & Phillips, M. (2008). Men, depression and masculinities: A review and recommendations. Journal of Men’s Health, 5, 194 –202. doi:10.1016/j.jomh.2008.03.016 
  4. Robertson, S. White, A. Gough, B. Robinson, M. Seims, A. Raine, G. Hanna, E. (2015) Promoting Mental Health and Wellbeing with Men and Boys: What Works? Centre for Men’s Health, Leeds Beckett University, Leeds.
  5. Magovcevic, M., & Addis, M. E. (2008). The masculine depression scale: Development and psychometric evaluation. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 9, 117–1321 ] Winkler D, Pjrek E, Kasper S. Gender-specific symptoms of depression and anger attacks. jmhg 2006;3(1):19–24. 
  6. Kilmartin C. Depression in men: communication, diagnosis and therapy. jmhg 2005; 2(1):95–9 7
  7. Seidler, Z.E., Dawes, A.J., Rice, S.M., Oliffe, J.L., & Dhillon, H.M. (2016). The role of masculinity in men’s help-seeking for depression: A systematic review. Clinical Psychology Review, 49:106-118. Retrieved from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0272735816300046
  8. Wong, J.Y., Ho, M.R., Wang, S.Y., & Miller, I.S.K. (2016). Meta-analyses of the relationship between conformity to masculine norms and mental health-related outcomes. Journal of Counselling Psychology.
  9. Wylie, C., Platt, S., Brownlie, J., Chandler, A., Connolly, S., Evans, R… Scourfield, J. (2012). Men, suicide, and society: Why disadvantaged men in mid-life die by suicide. Samaritans. Retrieved from: https://www.samaritans.org/sites/default/files/kcfinder/files/Men%20and%...
  10. Sharpe M.J. & Heppner, P.P. (1991) Gender role, gender-role conflict, and psychological wellbeing in men. Journal of Counselling Psychology, 38(3):323–30.
  11. Winkler, D, Pjrek, E. & Kasper, S. (2006) Gender-specific symptoms of depression and anger attacks. jmhg;3(1):19–24. 
  12. Addis, M. E., & Mahalik, J. R. (2003). Men, masculinity, and the contexts of help seeking. American Psychologist, 58, 5–14.
  13. American Psychological Association (nd) Controlling anger before it controls you. Retrieved from: https://www.apa.org/topics/anger/control.aspx
  14. Samaritans (September 2018) Suicide Statistics Report. Retrieved from: https://www.samaritans.org/about-us/our-research/facts-and-figures-about...
  15. Men’s Health Forum (2014) How to make mental health services work for men. Retrieved from: https://www.menshealthforum.org.uk/best-practice-mental-health-promotion
  16. Office for National Statistics (11 February 2016) Compendium: Overview of violent crime and sexual offences. Retrieved from: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/crimeandjustice/comp... Robertson, S. Gough, B. Hanna, E. Raine, G. Robinson, M. Seims, A. White, A. Successful mental health promotion with men: the evidence from ‘tacit knowledge’. Health Promotion International, 2016.