Mental health is often referred to as a silent killer. With the increased complexity of the world that we live in, coupled with the extreme financial pressure that families have been under over the last two years, burnout, which develops into mental health issues, is becoming more common. If left unchecked, this can become a severe issue for a country with a health system already facing significant challenges.

There needs to be increased dialogue when it comes to mental health. This is the first step in addressing a complex issue before it becomes debilitating.

Setting the scene: the influence of the Superwoman Paradox and the Man Up Dilemma 

In the bustling modern world, significant expectations are placed on individuals to succeed in their careers. These expectations can be both exhilarating and overwhelming.

Striving for success, happiness, and fulfilment are collective aspirations that have become benchmarks for our existence. However, hidden beneath these ambitions lies a complex set of societal demands, gender roles and family expectations.

The aspirations to achieve professional success and demanding social responsibilities create mental health struggles. At one end of the spectrum, we find women valiantly attempting to juggle many roles while coming to terms with what is referred to as the Superwoman Paradox (often referred to as Superwoman Syndrome). At the other end of the spectrum, men grapple with the overpowering expectation to adhere to the Man Up Dilemma.

These contrasting struggles present a compelling narrative that challenges traditional norms and highlights the urgent need for a more compassionate and inclusive understanding of mental health issues. In 2019, South Africa had the 10th highest suicide rate in the world, averaging 23.5 suicides per 100 000 individuals. This statistic is a poignant reminder that there needs to be a constant and inclusive awareness of the challenges contributing to the mental health issues that threaten to cripple the nation. According to WHO research, South Africa loses 13 774 lives to suicide every year. According to the research, 2 913 South African suicides are females, while the majority (10 861) are males. These statistics are in line with global trends that raise unsettling questions about toxic masculinity, mental health and societal expectations.

Unpacking the Superwoman Paradox and Man Up Dilema

What is the Superwoman Paradox? For decades, traditional gender-based roles have cast women as caregivers and homemakers. More recently, they have also been given the added pressure of being professionals that help contribute towards the financial running of the family. Most women do well when navigating this challenging labyrinth of responsibilities. What is the mental cost of this? Society often idealises the notion of a “superwoman”, a woman who flawlessly manages a career, family, relationships and aspirations without showing a hint of strain; however, many women find themselves dealing with imposter syndrome as they constantly strive to achieve these high standards and are pressurised to maintain this facade of perfection. This can wreak havoc on women’s mental health.

The pursuit of perfection often leads to stress, burnout and anxiety. Women may feel compelled to suppress their emotions to prioritise the needs of others. This leads to the neglect of their own wellbeing. “Superwomen” are expected to possess unwavering strength with impenetrable armour; this can lead to disappointment and feelings of failure when they realise they are mentally struggling.

Men have long been entangled in the webs of traditional masculinity, which defines the Man Up Dilemma. In the Man Up Dilemma, vulnerability is synonymous with weakness; from a young age, boys are taught to suppress their emotions and are encouraged to showcase traits like stoicism and independence. However, the societal expectation for men to be the unwavering pillars of strength can be suffocating as they feel compelled to internalise their struggles. This societal expectation of repression can be manifested in harmful ways, fuelling higher rates of substance abuse, aggression and suicide.

The stigma surrounding male and female mental health issues further compounds societal expectations of traditional gender roles and the conditioning associated with them; addressing this will be one of the most significant challenges of this century and is a cycle that must be broken.

Redefining gender norms and mental health

Breaking free from the Superwoman paradox and the Man Up dilemma requires a collective redefinition regarding gender roles and mental health.

It is imperative to recognise that vulnerability is not a sign of weakness. Instead, we must appreciate that it takes immense strength to acknowledge and address one’s mental health struggles. Significant work has been done in this regard, with many celebrities coming forward to detail their struggles. Glenn Close has spoken up about mental health: “What mental health needs is more sunlight, more candour, more unashamed conversation.” In a conversation about his battle with anxiety, Ryan Reynolds said: “To all of those like me who overschedule, overthink, overwork, over-worry and over-everything, please know you’re not alone.”

Efforts must be made to empower women to prioritise self-care, set boundaries and ask for help. Society must openly celebrate the multitude of roles that women are expected to juggle while allowing them space to embrace their imperfections. Similarly, significant efforts must be made to dismantle the toxic culture of toxic masculinity.  This may include redefining masculinity to embrace emotional intelligence, self-expression, and a willingness to seek support when needed.

By embracing a more inclusive perspective on mental health, we can unravel these societal pressures and create a new narrative where vulnerability is a badge of courage, authenticity is revered, and seeking help is a sign of wisdom.

It is time we cast aside the restraints of outdated expectations and recognise that true strength lies in embracing our authentic selves. In pursuing mental wellbeing, we must stand together and break the chains that confine us to traditional gender roles. Let us create a world where individuals are free to be human and mental health is a universal priority.

It is time we replace judgement with empathy and condemnation with understanding. Mental health and wellbeing are integral to the human experience and life journey.

Suicide Prevention Day is commemorated on 10 September 2023 to promote worldwide commitment and action to prevent suicide. By advocating for open conversations about mental health and challenging outdated gender norms, we can create a world where everyone can thrive emotionally and mentally.

The MANCOSA School of Healthcare not only provides courses that follow traditional literature, but our courses also encourage independent thinking that will redefine the future of healthcare. This includes a specific focus on mental health issues.

If you’re struggling with your mental health, contact the South African Depression and Anxiety Group’s (SADAG): Suicide Crisis Helpline 0800 567 567, CIPLA Mental Health Helpline 0800 456 789 or Discovery Medical Students & Young Doctors Helpline 0800 323 323

— Mehnaaz Olla is Manager of MANCOSA School of Healthcare


MANCOSA is a distance learning focused private higher education institution. MANCOSA prides itself on providing undergraduate and postgraduate degrees of the highest quality and endeavours to respond to the changing education demands of both public and private sectors in dynamic economies.

Established in 1995, MANCOSA’s goal has always been the provision of quality higher education to sectors of society that were previously denied access to these opportunities. This goal was expanded to position MANCOSA as one of the leading tertiary education institutions in the country. MANCOSA is a leading provider of management programmes and has more than 10 000 students currently enrolled in its programmes.

As a specialist provider of management programmes through supported distance education, MANCOSA has considerable expertise in the design and development of high-quality study materials and uses active research to remain at the cutting-edge of the latest management and leadership training trends.

source: Mail&Guardian

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