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Gender and mental health: The role of toys, media, and experiences in emotional skill development.

Although the conversation around mental health has become more widespread in recent years, we still live in a world where mental illness and its treatments are stigmatized. It can be hard to ask for help when you’re in need. It can be even harder when you fear the judgment of others. 

Even when individuals are able to overcome the barrier that stigma creates when it comes to mental health, asking for help is only the first step. To really make progress, individuals must have the emotional skills to first understand how they’re feeling, and then how to address the challenges they face. 

As a psychotherapy professional, I have found that this is easier said than done. Emotional skills are actually developed in early childhood, and although they can also be learned later in life, helping patients unlearn any negative relationship they have with feeling or expressing emotions can be a challenge. That’s why the toys, media, and experiences we create for our children are so important, and why it’s imperative that we steer away from gendered play. 

Think about it: Boys are often guided towards active play culture, while girls are encouraged to play with dolls or other toys that foster empathy and emotional intelligence. Having the opportunity to gain those skills at a young age strengthens a child’s ability to recognize their emotions as they grow into adulthood. 

In fact, research shows that while both men and women experience mental illness at similar rates, men are far less likely to seek mental health treatment than women. The stigma surrounding mental health is a major contributor to this, but so is the stereotype that men should suppress their emotions in order to be seen as “masculine.” 

In my own work, I have found that my male clients often have a much higher threshold for accessing different types of support services. Often, they only seek help when the problem they’re facing is already interfering with their lives in a holistic way. It is often easier for them to present me with a concrete problem as the reason for an appointment, rather than discuss their mental health as a whole. This can leave men to struggle with the negative feelings generated by their problems without adequate support, which puts them at greater risk of social exclusion. 

It is only once we have tackled their initial challenge together and created an atmosphere of trust that the client opens up and begins to discuss other issues they may be facing. Even once we create that trusting relationship, it can be hard to create an environment when my male clients feel comfortable being honest about their emotions. When I ask a male client directly about his feelings, the confusion that this question evokes in him is often palpable. Differences in emotional skills between men and women have been extensively documented. But despite these differences, we must remember that emotions are, and should be, a part of everyone’s lives, regardless of gender.

We must encourage our children, inclusive of all genders, to feel and express their emotions from a young age. But we must also put the systems into place now to support them as they work through the mental health challenges they face. When designing and implementing support services, it’s important to take a gender-sensitive approach into account, and to innovatively develop new ways of approaching these issues



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