Prof asks why men act the way they do

New se­ries of classes ex­am­ines toxic mas­culin­ity

The Denver Post - - DENVER & THE WEST - By Monte Wha­ley

Men aren’t do­ing so well in to­day’s so­ci­ety — or at least that’s what Steve Riss­man, a pro­fes­sor at Met­ro­pol­i­tan State Uni­ver­sity of Den­ver, thinks.

Men die on av­er­age five to seven years ear­lier than women, be­cause of a va­ri­ety of fac­tors, in­clud­ing sui­cide. Men are more likely than women to die from most of the 10 lead­ing causes of death, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. Cen­ters for Disease Con­trol. And all too of­ten, Riss­man said, men and boys con­fused about their place in a rapidly chang­ing world turn to a toxic mix of anger and re­sent­ment.

But that only makes sense, be­cause men have been told that the only mas­cu­line emo­tion they can dis­play is anger, Riss­man said. Fear and other “softer” emo­tions are sti­fled in the mod­ern male, which can lead to phys­i­cal and men­tal health prob­lems.

“If you can’t ad­mit to vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties, you aren’t likely to seek help, and that will only be trou­ble in the long run,” Riss­man said. “We teach boys early on, ‘Don’t ex­press your needs, but be strong.’ And some­times that means be­ing an­gry. But now we have a huge prob­lem of men dy­ing early, and that’s just been ac­cepted, and peo­ple say, ‘Well, that’s just the way things are.’

“But wait a sec­ond. That’s re­ally not OK.”

Riss­man has been ex­am­in­ing why men are in such a fix through a se­ries of men’s health classes at Metro State that he de­vel­oped. These classes are now be­ing of­fered un­der a new men’s health mi­nor that’s open to all ma­jors of study and will be the first of its kind in the coun­try, ac­cord­ing to uni­ver­sity of­fi­cials.

The cour­ses will be led by Riss­man, a pro­fes­sor at Metro for 10 years, who coun­sels young men on their anger and anx­i­ety is­sues and writes ex­ten­sively about men’s dis­eases and men­tal health.

Riss­man’s classes in­clude men and anger, men’s health, men across cul­tures and sev­eral oth­ers. A new class, fa­thers and fa­ther­ing, will be of­fered in the spring. Each looks at men through a wide cul­tural lens and tries to pro­vide some an­swers to nag­ging ques­tions, in­clud­ing a male’s re­fusal to deal with his health, Riss­man said.

“A lot of women ask, ‘Why do men act the way they do?’ ” he said. “Maybe we can help with some an­swers.”

“It al­lows me to com­mu­ni­cate bet­ter with men”

The classes are of­fered to both men and women, and they have proven in­valu­able to Pau­ line Zamora, an in­te­grated health ma­jor who wants to be­come a doc­tor.

“There are lots of classes of­fered to women that talk about women’s health, but I’ve never seen a class that looks at men’s heath,” Zamora said. “But it re­ally helps. It al­lows me to com­mu­ni­cate bet­ter with men. They’ve been told to re­ally suf­fer in si­lence and don’t ad­mit they might need help with some­thing. But to help them with their health, they have to open up to some­one.”

Stu­dent Gar­ciela Tor­res, an emer­gency med­i­cal tech­ni­cian, en­rolled in Riss­man’s classes to get a bet­ter idea of what made her fa­ther and brother tick, and to un­der­stand how men re­spond to health con­cerns.

“I now ap­proach is­sues more with an open un­der­stand­ing than be­fore, and I work hard not to judge based on cir­cum­stances,” said Tor­res, who wants to be­come a full­time health and well­ness coach.

“Even with pa­tients and par­ents, when I re­spond to an EMT call for a child, the mother and fa­ther are most likely go­ing to re­act dif­fer­ently to fear of the un­known, stress and pres­sure,” Tor­res said. “I gained a lot of un­der­stand­ing on how to han­dle those sit­u­a­tions dif­fer­ently.”

For­mer stu­dent An­drew Parks said he learned through Riss­

man’s classes how vast so­ci­etal changes are in­flu­enc­ing men — and of­ten not in a pos­i­tive way.

“We re­ally don’t have that many rit­u­als or land­marks about be­com­ing a man any­more,” Parks said. “Maybe a Jewish bar mitz­vah or maybe grad­u­at­ing from high school. But we don’t have el­ders around to guide us any­more.

“And now we are see­ing a chang­ing world where men have to share power or re­lin­quish it al­to­gether,” he said, “and a lot of men, es­pe­cially from older gen­er­a­tions, are hav­ing a prob­lem with that.”

Some men also still see anger and ag­gres­sion as the only gauge of mas­culin­ity, Parks said. “In so many cases, we see men draw­ing a line in the sand. They can’t show weak­ness, so they chal­lenge each other to fight over a girl or some­thing else.”

“We haven’t dealt with men’s health as a gen­der”

Help­ing men come to grips with their health needs not only ben­e­fits in­di­vid­u­als and their fam­i­lies, but also the com­mu­nity as a whole, said Jean Bon­homme, founder and ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Na­tional Black Men’s Health Net­work.

“Pre­ma­ture, un­nec­es­sary male death, ill­ness and dis­abil­ity hurts the econ­omy — caus­ing lost hours from work, di­min­ished pro­duc­tiv­ity — and it im­pairs fam­ily sta­bil­ity,” Bon­homme said. Men side­lined by ill­ness and dis­abil­ity also can “un­der­mine the health of women and chil­dren, di­rectly, emo­tion­ally and eco­nom­i­cally.”

In a re­cent class that ex­am­ined men and their re­la­tion­ship with women, Riss­man talked with 13 stu­dents — mostly women — about the in­flu­ence moth­ers have on their sons.

Riss­man said many homes don’t have fa­thers that sons can learn from and em­u­late.

Other homes have fa­thers who quickly pass most of the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of rais­ing chil­dren onto the mother.

That can lead to a son form­ing an un­healthy bond with his mom and de­vel­op­ing anger and re­sent­ment as he grows older, Riss­man said.

“He goes to med­i­cal school to please Mom and 10 to 20 years later, he re­al­izes, ‘I don’t like this life I have,’ ” Riss­man said. “Re­al­ity hits him pretty hard in the face.”

Some young men try to re­peat their re­la­tion­ship with their mom with a prospec­tive wife or girl­friend. “Then you have clingy guys, who want some­one to take care of their needs,” Riss­man said.

Oth­ers forgo any re­la­tion­ships with women. “They sim­ply with­draw from life,” he said.

Riss­man’s classes in­clude talks about men in mi­nor­ity cul­tures.

He also quickly points out that he sup­ports ef­forts to im­prove women’s men­tal and phys­i­cal health.

“There is a women’s stud­ies on ev­ery cam­pus, and that is great and very im­por­tant,” Riss­man said. “It’s just that we haven’t dealt with men’s health as a gen­der in a com­pre­hen­sive way. I think it’s great we are tak­ing that on.”

Hy­oung Chang, The Den­ver Post

David Reiswe­ber, 23, at­tends class dur­ing a dis­cus­sion about the in­flu­ence of moth­ers across cul­tures. Pro­fes­sor Steve Riss­man has been ex­am­in­ing the state of mod­ern men in a Met­ro­pol­i­tan State Uni­ver­sity of Den­ver class he de­vel­oped.

Hy­oung Chang, The Den­ver Post

Steve Riss­man, right, a pro­fes­sor at Met­ro­pol­i­tan State Uni­ver­sity of Den­ver, is cre­at­ing a first­of­its kind mi­nor called men’s stud­ies at the uni­ver­sity. Riss­man will ex­plore is­sues such as men’s anger, con­fu­sion at the mod­ern world and why men die so much ear­lier than women.

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