Our boys are not OK.
While girls and women have undergone supportive, transformative movements over the past 50 years, boys and men have no such similar movement. In fact, a wide variety of metrics show that young men are faring far worse than their female peers. In what has been called the “boy crisis,” boys get in more trouble at school, are more violent, more withdrawn, and have more mental health issues than girls do.
According to the most recent CDC studies, 1 in 5 youth in the United States between the ages of 9 and 17 struggle with a mental health or substance use disorder. These are serious enough to negatively affect their ability to function at home, at school, or in social settings. These numbers have steadily increased since the early 2000s, with boys outpacing girls about 3 to 1.
The same study showed boys experience socio-emotional difficulties defined as, “moderate to severe difficulties with emotions, concentration, behavior, or getting along with other people” at a rate of almost twice that of girls.
Even more concerning, suicide is now the second-leading cause of death for teens and young adults. The suicide rate for boys being significantly higher than that of girls. According to the CDC, 12% of high school boys have seriously considered attempting suicide, 10% have made a suicide plan, and 6% have completed a suicide attempt.
As awareness of the mental health crisis increases, we as a society are becoming more comfortable talking about mental health and suicide. We and more accepting of people who struggle with mental health issues.
Unfortunately, deeply-rooted stigmas and cultural biases continue to make it harder for boys to ask for help or talk about their mental health openly. The lack of caregivers and treatment facilities specializing in the unique needs of young men is another hurdle that boys and their families face.
Let’s take a look at a few of the factors at the root of the boy crisis:
Boys Get a Bad Rap
Boys who are in crisis are often caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. On the one hand, they are routinely socialized to “act like a man,” to keep up a facade of outward strength and stoicism, while suppressing signs of weakness or emotions that are considered “feminine.”
Yet when boys act out in boy-centric ways, such as withdrawal or increased aggression, their cries for help are either misinterpreted as simply “boys being boys,” or punished and labeled as “toxic masculinity.”
In her new book, To Raise a Boy, Washington Post investigative reporter Emma Brown considers what it means to be a boy in today’s world. Through interviews with hundreds of educators, researchers, mental health professionals, and boys themselves, Brown concludes that outdated notions of masculinity are letting our boys down.
For example, boys aren’t expected to show the full range of human emotions, with certain feelings like sadness and fear labeled as exclusively feminine. They are socialized to believe if only they are “man” enough, they will be able to handle physical and emotional pain. And, finally, the stereotype that boys are naturally unfeeling and prone to violence has created a generation who misunderstands young men– and young men who misunderstand themselves.
“We have failed boys,” Brown writes, “and our failure amounts to a public health crisis.”
Boys are Not “Toxic”
Another element of the boy crisis is the idea that things that are traditionally feminine are positive and desirable, while traits that are considered masculine are “bad.”
Characterizing the display of traditional masculine qualities – such as strength, power, and aggression – as “toxic masculinity” has taken hold in American culture. But Dr. Michael Gurian, marriage and family therapist and the author of Saving Our Sons and The Wonder of Boys, pushes back against the idea.
Gurian believes that toxic masculinity is, by and large, a myth. It evolved from the need to explain away the rash of violence by young men in recent years.
“They say, ‘Well, you know, masculinity is the problem,’ especially traditional masculinity. And then it becomes ‘toxic masculinity.’ Well, masculinity is not the problem. And, in fact, masculinity is crucial for male development.”
According to Gurian, part of the problem lies with the word and what people think is or isn’t masculine.
“People say guys are violent because of toxic masculinity, but that’s not why they are violent,” Gurian says. “They are violent because they are mentally ill, depressed.”
“When you have depressed males, you’re going to have more fight or flight, so you will have more of them who will become violent than females when they’re depressed. That includes more suicides and violence against others.”
Boys are Wired Differently
The brains of boys and girls are built differently. Biochemical differences are pre-set in utero by gene markers on the X and Y chromosomes.
Although each child is unique, speaking generally, girls have more verbal centers in the brain. This helps girls communicate when something is wrong more easily than boys. It allows them to better connect complex or confusing emotions with the words to describe them.
Boys, on the other hand, tend to talk less, and express themselves with activity and motion. The male frontal lobe matures later, and has less blood flow. This explains the difficulties boys can have in communicating.
Furthermore, the neural circuitry in the frontal lobe which regulates impulse control is one of the last parts of the brain to develop in men.
That can lead to problems in school and other settings, where boys’ unique nature runs up against expectations to sit still, listen quietly, keep their hands to themselves, or express themselves verbally.
Boys Want and Need Help
Despite the proven differences in girls and boys, both sexes are, actually, quite expressive of pain and sadness. The trouble is, we expect (and want) boys to express it in the way girls do. In doing so, we miss the signs our boys are in trouble. We miss their cries for help until it’s too late.
We can help our boys do better and live better if we acknowledge the innate differences in boys and girls; if we understand the science and apply it; if we reject the idea that males are inherently bad and masculinity “toxic”; and if we honor what it means to be a boy and instill that honor into our boys.
The boy crisis is real, but it also fixable.
In future posts, we will take a look at specific ways parents, teachers and society can better support and influence boys. Stay tuned.
Our boys need us now in ways they have not before. They are being raised in a very complex world and many of their support systems and developmental frameworks have crumbled. As we bring our passionate attention to boys today, and come together to nurture, support, and educate them well, we give a gift not only to them, but to our families, communities, and culture. I hope you will agree that it is time for a coordinated grassroots effort to help our sons.
By Natalie Whitlock, for The Forge School
If your child is having a mental health emergency, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or text 741741 from anywhere in the country to talk with a trained crisis counselor.
This article is for informational purposes only and not to be considered medical advice.
The suggestions herein should be adapted to local and state laws and mandates, and your own individual and family circumstances.