Beirut, Lebanon. Photo by Katrine Dige Houmøller.

Nearly Half of Arab Men Experience Depression Symptoms Amidst Cultural Pressures of Masculinity

Masculinity is heavily influenced by cultural constructs, shaping male worldviews and societal expectations. It promotes traits associated with toxic masculinity. These include resilience, emotional suppression, and engagement in risky behavior and violence.

In the Arab world, these traits become even more pronounced within a societal structure characterized by collectivism, patriarchy, and traditional gender roles. According to the 2019 study ‘Social Construction of Arab Masculinity and Its Effects on Mental Health’ by El Halabi, Founouni, and Arawi, these cultural and societal factors impose specific duties and pressures on Arab men.

This inhibition of emotional expression makes males more prone to mental health disorders. 42 percent of men in the Arab world experience symptoms of depression, according to data from Be Brave Beirut in 2024. However, men are less likely to seek help compared to women.

Hillah, Iraq. Photo by Katrine Dige Houmøller.

Vulnerability equals weakness

Many Arab adolescents have reported limited opportunities to express and reflect on their experiences with depression, as revealed in the 2021 study ‘Depression and Suicide Among Arab Adolescents’ by Latefa Ali Dardas.

Moreover, research suggests that Arab adolescents also encounter difficulties in articulating the meaning of depression and are uncertain about its symptoms. This indicates that depression is often avoided as a topic of discussion, particularly within Middle Eastern households.

Homs, Syria. Photo by Katrine Dige Houmøller.

For Arab men, admitting to or acknowledging depression is often viewed as a threat to masculinity. Mental health struggles are perceived to diminish one’s masculine identity. 

According to numbers from Be Brave Beirut in 2024, 62 percent of men in the Arab world associate vulnerability or emotional expression with weakness.

Henry A. Montero, a mental health counselor in New York, attributes this phenomenon to toxic masculinity, which is prevalent not only in the Arab world but globally. This concept discourages men from expressing any emotion other than anger and encourages behaviors that assert male dominance in various situations.

The nexus of masculinity and mental health

The correlation between masculinity and mental health is a recurring theme in the literature, stressing that they are significantly linked and should not be seen as separate. Ronald F. Levant, a psychology professor at the University of Akron and prolific author on men’s psychology, emphasizes this connection.

Conforming to masculine norms, particularly the suppression of emotions, can result in mild alexithymia in men. Alexithymia is a term used to describe difficulties in experiencing emotions, and it is more common among people with depression. This underscores the direct link between mental health and masculinity.

Sidon, Lebanon. Photo by Katrine Dige Houmøller.

Constant dismissal of feelings and reinforcement of gender stereotypes teach young boys to suppress their emotions. According to mental health counselor Montero, this pattern eventually results in dysfunctional emotional expression and, ultimately, depression.

Men’s coping strategies

In Arab countries, individuals often describe their psychological issues as physical symptoms to evade the stigma surrounding mental illness. Consequently, they tend to underutilize mental health services and harbor negative attitudes toward them. 

Instead, many rely on faith and religious leaders for coping with mental health issues. In politically unstable and violent areas, mental health problems are more common.

In the podcast ‘Speaking of Psychology: How Masculinity Can Hurt Mental Health,’ Professor Wizdom Powell explains that men often avoid discussing masculinity and mental health due to fears of peer ridicule and exclusion for not meeting group standards.

Cairo, Egypt. Photo by Katrine Dige Houmøller.

Men brought up with traditional masculine values often grapple with complex emotions, frequently attempting to suppress or ignore them. Mental health counselor Montero believes this is why men often use external methods to cope with the internal pain of depression. Many men handle it by overworking or self-medicating with drugs and alcohol to avoid dealing with their depression and anxiety.

Sharing is essential

Several findings underscore the urgent need to enhance mental health services for men in the Arab world. Increased research, intervention, and advocacy are essential to raise awareness about this issue.

Mental health counselor Montero highlights that nurturing trust encourages men to share their emotions. Empowering men to articulate their feelings and listen without judgment is paramount. This is especially crucial considering that many men refrain from sharing due to fear of ridicule. Montero emphasizes that sharing is essential for coping with depression.

Insights from Be Brave Beirut suggest that empowering men to seek assistance can lead to improved mental well-being and stronger relationships. Fostering open dialogues on gender roles can challenge harmful stereotypes.

According to Samira Aghacy, Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Lebanese American University, the definition of manhood is evolving, with many men seeking a new understanding that aligns with modern ideals. Modernity and women’s empowerment are reshaping Lebanese culture, prompting men to adopt behaviors once seen as feminine. 

Yet, conflicting forces of modernity and tradition strain societal norms, challenging long-held ideals of masculinity. At the same time, traditional masculinity persists, asserting dominance over societal norms.