Study investigates what it means to be a man in the Macedon Ranges

  16 February 2023  NWMPHN   

Colliding ideas of what it means to be “a man” are fuelling loneliness and social isolation in Victoria’s Macedon Ranges, impacting mental health.

A research project funded by North Western Melbourne Primary Health Network (NWMPHN) found that differences between the traditional concepts of masculinity in long-term locals and more modern concepts in recent tree-change arrivals are damaging social cohesion.

The result is not only a disconnect between old and new male residents, but also the fracturing of traditional male domains, such as the pub, the volunteer fire brigade and the footy club. This arises because of uneasiness between established gender roles and more fluid city-derived ideas, plus concurrent changes in participation by women.

The findings arise from a series of interviews with male Macedon Ranges residents of different ages and backgrounds. One non-binary resident was also involved. The work is an extension of a major year-long study called The Human Code Project, funded by NWMPHN, that conducted a deep dive into the thoughts and plans of the Macedon Ranges community.

The new study is an offshoot of the main project. Led by Dr Sarah Bonell of mental health service Orygen, it is published in the January 2023 issue of the peer-reviewed journal Sex Roles.

Dr Bonell and her colleagues identified three themes governing ideas of masculinity within the district.

The first was the pressure to conform to quite rigid concepts of what it means to be a man, typified by “agricultural” values, such as aggression, stoicism and self-reliance. In the shadow of these values lay two others: being white, and being heterosexual.

“Participants spoke to the fact that some Macedon Ranges men … stigmatised and socially excluded sexual and ethnic minorities,” the authors wrote. One interviewee, they noted, described his treatment as a gay man as “bordering on bullying”.

The second theme arose from the fact that most of the Macedon Ranges lies within an hour commute of Melbourne. Many residents are tree-changers, newly arrived from the Big Smoke.

The authors found that while these incomers brought with them more inclusive and fluid ideas of masculinities, the newer and older communities have yet to properly merge.

“This cultural shift has contributed to a culture of conflict and disconnect among local men,” the authors noted.

“That is, the Macedon Ranges was framed as going through a ‘teething process’ whereby the community lacked cohesion and sense of belonging was challenged for some residents.”

The third theme also arose from the proximity of Melbourne and the fact that many locals commute daily to the city for work. This was a cause of loneliness and social disconnection not found in communities located further away.

“The geographic location of the Macedon Ranges contributes uniquely to men’s experiences of estrangement from their local community,” Dr Bonell and colleagues wrote, adding that “this in turn fosters poor mental wellbeing.”

The authors expressed concern that all these factors are contributing to the higher-than-average male suicide rate in the region.

“Overall, these phenomena were implicated in damaging the psychosocial wellbeing of local men via reducing social connectedness,” they wrote.

“Because men’s mental illness is so pervasive within regional Australian communities, these findings have direct implications for policymakers.”

The full paper can be found here.

NWMPHN has recently funded and supported an innovative project developed by the Macedon Ranges Suicide Prevention Action Group (MRSPAG), called ‘Cut The Silence’.

Working with well-known locals such as actor Shane Jacobson and comedian Tom Gleeson, MRSPAG offered barbers in the region suicide awareness training, so they could encourage local men to talk openly about their mental health challenges.

You can find more about the Cut The Silence campaign here.