Boys do cry: Study finds men at increased risk of mental illness following breakups

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Outdated male stereotypes often paint men as stoic and unemotional following a breakup. In reality, however, emotions seldom discriminate by gender. Case in point, researchers from the University of British Columbia find that men are at an increased risk of mental illness, such as anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts, after a relationship ends.

“Most men experienced the onset or worsening of mental illness symptoms during a distressed relationship or following the breakdown of a relationship,” says lead study author Dr. John Oliffe, a Canada Research Chair and UBC professor of nursing primarily focusing on men’s mental health, in a university release.

Study authors interviewed 47 male participants on their personal breakup experiences with an intimate partner. One notable trend among these men was that when a relationship faced new issues, men tended to downplay or ignore the problem, further driving a wedge in the relationship.

“Stereotyped masculinity plays a role in how men react to a broken relationship,” explains Dr. Oliffe, who also leads UBC’s Reducing Male Suicide research excellence cluster. “For example, men’s uncertainty for how to articulate and problem-solve in the relationship context resulted in many men isolating rather than reaching out for help. Most men in the study were battling with transitions in the partnership—like bereavement, parenting or infidelity—and their primary goal was to avoid conflict.”

How can men cope in a positive way?

Researchers say emotions and feelings like sadness, regret, and guilt are common after a breakup. Many men who reported dealing with these feelings also admitted to the use of alcohol and other substances to help numb the pain. Besides just those primary emotions, it’s also important to consider the real-world stressors that can be exacerbated by a breakup. For married couples and parents, a divorce means serious financial headaches and potential child custody disputes. Alternatively, many men may find themselves cut off from certain friends they met through their significant other following a breakup.

Currently, it’s also pertinent to consider the impact of COVID-19. The ongoing pandemic has made mental health harder for many people, which means breakups in these uncertain times can extract an even heavier emotional and mental toll than usual.

Moving on to more positive findings, the study did at least conclude most men eventually seek out ways to cope and move on.

“Help-seeking efforts among these men were wide-ranging and included individual or solitary efforts like exercise, reading and self-care while other men tapped existing networks or extended their efforts to connect with support groups, or attended therapy,” says project lead and study co-author Gabriela Montaner. “We need to re-conceptualize men’s mental health promotion as legitimately including self-help, informal resources and male peer group services in addition to professional services.”

“For the longest time we have treated separation and divorce as demographic data for examining risk factor potential in men’s mental illness and suicide. The current study findings provide important contexts and direction for getting upstream to assist men to build better relationships,” Dr. Oliffe concludes.

The study is published in the journal Social Science and Medicine – Qualitative Research in Health.

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