Men, Mental Health and Violence Prevention

During this time of COVID-19, we would be remiss to not discuss mental health issues and the intricacies around depression, a mental health diagnosis that for many, has operated as a problematic label of which we do not want to be associated. Symptoms of lethargy, decreased motivation and enjoyment, fatigue, persistent sadness, irritability, along with many others are interpreted as signs of weakness instead of signals for compassion, help, and support. The potential of being perceived as someone who does not have their “stuff together” can feel like a death sentence, responded to with shame-riddled language terminating any “good” social position an individual may have in their social groups . Misconceptions around depression and the “types” of people that experience it contribute to invalidating experiences and unsafe spaces, which often creates barriers for many to identify with depression, be receptive to and/or seek assistance for it. BBC news source reported rates around suicide completion gives further insight on the effects of depression.

With all of this, there have been improvements on how we, as a nation, perceive and address mental health issues. We’ve increased awareness campaigns and resources, which has shown for some groups (white female-identified or male-identified, and those holding higher socioeconomic status) a decrease in suicidality. Even in that, when taking into account race and gender identification around present statistics, rates for trans-men and /or black boys/men remain comparatively high. Depression is an issue that can not be sufficiently explored without including our current construct on masculinity into the mix. Imposed and internalized characteristics around masculinities adds further nuance into an already complicated issue. In 2003, author and psychotherapist Terrence Real released a book entitled “I Don’t Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression,” which beautifully explores the intersection between masculinity and depression.

In the text, Real quotes essayist, Henry David Thoreau, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation;” this speaks to how some of the many character traits we’ve assigned as masculine, such as being emotionally strong, not crying or being sad, and doing it all on your own can limit men-identified folks’ ability to recognize depression within themselves and for others to see it as well. In result, expressions of depression from men-identified folks become covert, making it difficult to connect specific behaviors to an emotional issue, especially when some of those behaviors harm others. Real further invites us to expand our understandings of addictions (substance, alcohol, gambling, and sex) and interpersonal violence (dating, domestic, and sexual assault). Addiction and/or interpersonal violence do not solely occur because of depression and this is an important distinction to note as we continue to grapple with mental health as an integral part of the conversation about prevention and response.

It is essential that we increase awareness on how mental health issues for men identified folks covertly show up and take that into consideration around our violence prevention efforts. Terrence Real, explains that in order for identified mental health issue to be addressed there must be a transition from behaviors that may be covert (gambling, excessive sex, violence, etc) to overt (crying, visible sadness, etc). In order for that to happen as preventionist, educators, advocates, researchers, and clinicians we ourselves must expand our understanding of symptoms and cultivate a culture that safely allows men-identified folks to make such a transition.

Herman, J. L., Brown, T. N., & Haas, A. P. (2020, April 09). Suicide Thoughts and Attempts Among Transgender Adults. Retrieved May 14, 2020, from

Real, T. (2003). I don’t want to talk about it: overcoming the secret legacy of male depression. New York: Scribner.

Schumacher, H. (2019, March 18). Why more men than women die by suicide. Retrieved May 14, 2020, from

Masculinity and the Double-Edged Sword of Competition by Nicolas Choquette-Levy

In what ways does competition shape the expression of our identities, particularly for men-identified folks? I have been thinking a lot about this question since last summer, when I had the chance to participate in a summer research program in Europe with 50 other graduate students from around the world. It was one of the most fulfilling academic experiences I have ever had: over the course of three months, I formed several close friendships, learned a lot about different cultures, and expanded my academic boundaries to new fields of study. In fact, I remember thinking halfway through the summer that our student cohort was remarkably close and supportive – that is, until the day that our supervisors announced there would be a prize for the best student paper to come out of the cohort. After that day, we still remained friendly, but there was something unmistakably different about the tenor of our interactions. People started gossiping about who would win the award, and gradually many of our interactions changed from a frame of appreciative inquiry – the feeling that we were all on a journey, learning from each other – to one of judging and critiquing each other’s work. This subtle shift also had gender implications: the people who were rumored to be favorites for the award were almost all men, even though the female students had clearly done equally impressive work, and the male students tended to take up more conversation space whenever discussions turned toward the award.

Even months after I returned from the summer program, I couldn’t shake the feeling that we lost a little bit of what made the experience special the day we heard about the award, and I was especially curious to explore the gender implications of competition. We know from psychological research that competition is often associated with “agentic” or “masculine” identities, whereas “feminine” or “communal” identities are often associated with cooperation. With this in mind, we recently had a MAVRIC lunch discussion around masculinity and competition, taking on questions such as: How does competition contribute to our identities as men, and in what ways might it suppress expression of our full, holistic selves? Equally as important – how can competition serve to include/exclude other individuals from important groups and spaces?

We touched on several ways in which masculinity and competition intersect, and it was especially interesting to think about what purposes competition serves in various aspects of our lives. For example, competition plays a central role in athletic life: our identities are often defined by teams we belong to and in opposition to our athletic adversaries. One aspect that came through clearly in our discussion about athletics is the fine line that separates healthy from unhealthy competition. On the one hand, competition can provide the structure and pressure necessary for individuals to pursue greatness – without clear rules and a challenging measuring stick, it can be difficult to measure progress and set ambitious goals. It also provides an intense, shared experience that helps to facilitate deep relationships, including male friendships that often seem increasingly out of reach for men as we transition into adulthood. On the other hand, a narrow focus on “winning at all costs” can blind us to other important aspects of a healthy, well-balanced life. The pressure of concentrating our complex identities into an almost impossibly tight measure of success contributes to relatively high levels of anxiety among athletes, and can also lead to jealousy and enmity between individuals who might otherwise form deep friendships in a less competitive atmosphere. The fear of losing in a competitive atmosphere might also dissuade us from taking chances or stepping outside our comfort zone, which are key ingredients for our own personal growth.

Many of the athletes and coaches in our discussion group mentioned that they manage this double-edged sword by setting clear boundaries for competitive spaces: competition is turned “on” for practices and games, when the main goal is to best your opponent, but turned “off” once you leave the field. This distinction is crucial not just for team bonding after an intense practice, but also as a release valve for our own physical and mental health, to ensure that we are not solely defined by competition against someone or something. But what happens in other aspects of our lives, where there isn’t a physical field to constrain our competitive impulses? How should we think of competition in our classrooms and workplaces, in casual settings with friends, with siblings, or even with intimate partners? Here again, competition can inspire us to push further towards self-improvement and facilitate bonding, but left unchecked, can be used to exclude others, and to constrain different aspects of our own identity. In the summer research program, I felt the paper competition both motivated me to work harder to produce high-quality research, but also stifled the part of me that was genuinely interested in learning more about others’ work. I also found that I subconsciously presented a competitive “front” to my male colleagues – emphasizing that I was confident about my work and knew what I was doing – while often relying on female colleagues to express my doubts and cultivate non-competitive relationships. Again, what consequences might these behavioral patterns have for the ability of others to express their complex identities, whether it be other men who were also looking for non-competitive friendships, or women who want to be perceived as fierce competitors?

I believe one key difference between these situations and athletic environments is that in most aspects of our lives, the boundary between the competitive and non-competitive arenas is less clear. This can be especially problematic for interpersonal relationships, where a seemingly harmless dynamic of “one-upmanship” can escalate into increasing bitterness without a clear safe space for removing competition. Furthermore, infusing competition into key decision-making spaces in workplace or social environments is often used, intentionally or unintentionally, to disenfranchise gender identities traditionally perceived as less masculine and competitive. One of my key take-aways from our MAVRIC discussion is to think more explicitly about the question, “competition in service of what?” Harnessed for constructive purposes – whether that is bonding, self-improvement, excellence – competition can be an incredibly powerful tool in many facets of our lives. But we must be equally aware of what we risk giving up in creating competitive environments, and set clear boundaries for when competition ends, and when we are allowed to grow other parts of our identities.

What a Year for MAVRIC!

The 2017-2018 year has been a year of accountability, movement, and change. Those who’ve been silenced are using their voices to speak out against sexual and interpersonal violence in a multitude of ways. To witness the significant impact the #Metoo movement has made, including creating the platform for increased public conversations around Toxic Masculinity, has been amazing. The MAVRIC (Men’s Allied Voices for a Respectful and Inclusive Community) Project has had the opportunity to lead discussions on campus on how identifying and challenging Toxic Masculinity contributes to both the emotional as well as physical safety of all of us.

Click here to access MAVRIC’s newsletter that highlights some of the things we’ve been up to during the year: 2017-2018 MAVRIC Newsletter.


What is a MAVRIC conversation? What do we talk about over lunch every other week?

MAVRIC has a two-pronged approach: we’re committed to working on ourselves and committed to working in the world. These two aspects of MAVRIC feed into one another: the one demands the other.

We can’t dismantle the institutional privilege that men enjoy if we’re not willing to ask hard questions of ourselves about the privilege we’ve been granted in our own lives. Likewise, we can’t rest satisfied that we’ve done good work on ourselves, knowing that unhealthy masculinity is doing damage in our communities.

Action leads to and demands reflection and internal work; the fruit of reflection is action.

In a future post we’ll write more about the action we’ve got planned for this coming semester and how we’re working as allies with other campus groups to address gender inequity at Princeton and beyond. Here we want to focus a bit on the more personal and reflective work we’re doing to free ourselves of the “man-box.”

One foundational site of this work is our bi-weekly lunch conversations. These conversations are open to any member of the Princeton community that identifies as a man. As those who have participated can attest, they are not places where we debate the “one true way” to be a man. There’s no such thing. Rather, these conversations have proven to be a place where we as men can unpack our own internalized ideas about what it is to be a man. It’s a place to begin to let go of the stereotypes that have constrained us and often led us to feel lonely and ashamed when we don’t measure up.

We usually begin with a concrete topic—something happening in the news or the broader cultural conversation. In the past, we’ve talked about Eminem calling out President Trump, Colin Kaepernick and the #takeaknee protest, the movie “Moonlight,” and some of the men we’ve looked up to in our lives. We ask critical questions of ourselves and one another: we try to see all sides of the issue. But we also look for the tender spots where some emotion comes to the surface: we try to name those feelings and support each other as we connect not just with our minds but with our hearts.

Over the past few months, we’ve had a rich and important discussion about how MAVRIC conversations fit into our larger mission as an organization, and specifically if these conversations should be open to anyone, no matter where they fall on the gender spectrum.

Without a doubt, the work of building a truly inclusive community for everyone is work that involves everyone. It would be foolish—and ironically in line with the fantasy of male autonomy we’re trying to deconstruct—to imagine that men could or should do this work alone. Those of us who identify as men need to be always listening to the voices of those who don’t.

Why, then, are many MAVRIC conversations reserved for those who identify as men? One reason is that we want these conversations to be a place for real personal reflection and for collective processing on our stories and struggles as men. We’re asking ourselves to be tremendously vulnerable—which runs against the grain of everything men are taught. We’ve found that having women in those spaces can be a temptation to perform an ideal version of ourselves, rather than grapple courageously with the more messy selves we actually are.

Secondly, we also want to model what it’s like for men to challenge and support one another in this work. Men of good will have often turned to women to learn and talk more about issues of gender injustice. That’s wonderful. We absolutely must listen to women, center their perspective, and amplify their voices. But when men turn only to women to process their feelings about their own socialization and to ask how they can be better allies to women—as many have since the rise of #MeToo—we also need to recognize that that’s an example of male privilege. We cannot make it the responsibility of women to educate us about of the toxic manifestations of masculinity. That’s work for us to do—and to support and hold one another accountable in it.

Again, these conversations are just one of the things that MAVRIC does: they represent just one of the prongs in our two-pronged approach. The fruit this vulnerable reflection is action: action that aims to reshape our community to be always more just and inclusive. In that, we work alongside so many others who share that goal.

Action, in turn, leads to and demands further reflection and internal work, and the give-and-take continues. Acknowledging that we as men need time and space to reflect, challenge ourselves, and train for that work, we’ve set up MAVRIC conversations as part of our mission to help men work as full partners with people across the gender spectrum who hunger for justice.

Ryan Leaf’s Letter to his Younger Self

In light of the NFL Draft, check out this moving piece from the no. 2 pick from 1998–Ryan Leaf. It’s a letter he wrote this week to his younger self: the 21-year-old kid who was just drafted by the Chargers, who doesn’t know that he’s about to become one of the biggest draft busts in history, about to flee from his shame into a prescription drug addiction, about to spend 32 months in prison for breaking and entering a neighbor’s home to score pills.

The part that moved me the most was his reflection on how the media narrative around who would be the no. 1 pick pushed him to become someone he wasn’t:

“Peyton is clean-cut. His dad played in the NFL. He comes from a well-respected football family. And with everybody talking about you vs. Peyton, you started to feel like people wanted you to be something different. That they wanted you to be a little more brash. Maybe a little cocky. So between the time you left Washington State and draft day, something shifted inside you. You became what you thought people wanted you to be instead of being who you really are.

The Ryan Leaf the world has seen throughout the NFL draft process and the one they’re about to see treating reporters and teammates like shit as a professional is not the real Ryan Leaf. The real Ryan Leaf is not a narcissist, or a criminal, or a drug addict.

The real Ryan Leaf is strong, empathetic and self-aware. He understands that there’s more to life than money, power and prestige. The real Ryan Leaf is comfortable in his own skin and doesn’t care what anybody thinks about him, as long as he feels good about himself.

That Ryan Leaf is somewhere inside you. But you’ve buried him so far down that this other persona you’re building up is going to have to get so far out of control that it will take something drastic for you to dig deep and bring out the real you.”

Read the whole piece here.