Commonly held beliefs about masculinity influence the way men talk about and experience their mental health. See how the pressures on male minds have been depicted in images ranging from satire to modern-day zines, via themes including fatherhood, Freud and the First World War.
A solitary man afflicted by “a fit o’them curst blue devils” is the subject of this caricature from the 1830s. Problems with mental health can lead to loneliness, and loneliness can exact a toll on mental health, leading to a vicious cycle that is not uniquely experienced by men. However, widespread associations of ideal masculinity with physical strength and mental fortitude often result in men facing such “blue devils” without support.
Published in Punch in 1869, this cartoon shows awareness of the influence of “tobacco”, “stimulants” and the “open air” on mental health: advice that remains valid 150 years later. However, an instruction to “cultivate a cheerful frame of mind, and take a lively view of things” suggests a now-outdated belief that depression can be addressed alone, simply through a change in an individual’s mindset.
This late 19th-century painting by John Whitehead Walton shows a young child suffering from a serious illness. As the child’s mother collapses in despair, the father observes passively. Ideals of parenthood cast mothers as caregivers and fathers as breadwinners, often at a remove from family life.
The distant father was not confined to the Victorian era. This early 20th-century advertisement for Bile Beans, a herbal tonic, targets mothers as those responsible for both the health and happiness of their loved ones. The father, as breadwinner in this nuclear family model, has limited responsibility for family wellbeing; we can see this here through his partial absence from the scene.
As well as family relationships (or lack thereof), activities that men are expected to take part in outside the home have significant implications for mental health. The title of this work by Conrad Felixmüller loosely translates as ‘Soldier in a Lunatic Asylum’. As a medical orderly during World War I, the German expressionist witnessed psychological trauma on a vast scale. The mental health of thousands of men was compromised by the masculine duty of fighting for one’s country.
It has historically not been acceptable for men to discuss when they are suffering from mental health issues. In this 1938 cartoon, the artist Frank Reynolds ridicules the concept of ‘psychology for all’ during the year of Sigmund Freud’s arrival in London. The sarcastic lean of the psychiatrist, the discomfort of the well-built man in a small chair and the caption “Go on about Mummy” combine to ridicule the prospect of men discussing their emotional wellbeing.
More recently, there has been more acceptance that men may need to talk and be supported psychologically. In this World Health Organization public health poster, a man with HIV/AIDS receives advice and support from family and friends. This scene alludes to the impact of physical health problems on mental health. In addition, the prevalence of the HIV/AIDS epidemic among men who have sex with men reminds us that other identities, such as sexuality, intersect with gender to affect our experiences of mental health.
Paralleling the “blue devils” featured earlier in this gallery, this image from Anxiety, a zine by Jasmine Parker, depicts a man experiencing this mental illness in silence. Produced in 2014, the illustration indicates that we still have a long way to go in recognising the impact of gender ideals on mental health in a man’s world.
About the author
Sam is a Graduate Trainee at Wellcome. His interests in masculinity and fatherhood in historical contexts developed while studying at the University of Leeds.