Do you have that pesky voice in your head constantly shutting you down? Maybe you hear it say, “be a man”; “just do better”; “suck it up and deal”; “talking about your feelings makes you weak”; or “dude, no one wants to hear about your problems, just push through”. Seems familiar?
You are not alone. Men across multiple cultures to include the United States of America are constantly told to bottle up their emotions and not talk about their feelings because vulnerability is seen as weakness. This is not only a cultural norm, but something that families instill in young boys growing up, in professional career settings, and in interpersonal relationships throughout our lives. But it’s all bullshit. If you want to know the truth, allowing yourself the space and strength to be vulnerable and discuss what you are going through makes you a man with courage; the courage to help yourself when you need to in a healthy way.
The defining stereotyped image of whats makes someone a “man” includes expectations to use aggression (verbal and/or physical) to solve their problems, suppressing emotions and never talking about their problems, isolating themselves and withdrawing (“because no one wants to hear your problems”), expected to be effortlessly attractive and/or in shape, value sexual conquests over emotional intimacy, homophobia, and be tough/intimidate others to get their way and/or defend themselves.
Because our culture tells us that men should just sit down and shut up about their vulnerabilities, this often leads to self-destructive means of coping in men. Whether that be alcohol and/or substance misuse or abuse; or sabotaging personal and/or professional relationships with terrible communication skills and next to no problem solving abilities.
According to Benita N. Chatmon, PhD, MSN, RN, CNE, “Depression and suicide are ranked as a leading cause of death among men. Six million men are affected by depression in the United States every single year. Men (79% of 38,364) die by suicide at a rate four times higher than women (Mental Health America [MHA], 2020). They also die due to alcohol-related causes at 62,000 in comparison to women at 26,000. Men are also two to three times more likely to misuse drugs than women (Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, 2017). These statistics are troubling because they reinforce the notion that males are less likely to seek help and more likely than women to turn to dangerous, unhealthy behaviors.” (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7444121/)
So, how can we help challenge the negative stereotypes men are expected to live up to? How do we break the stigma so that men can achieve the felt safety in asking for help from others, whether that be trusted loved ones or professionals?
First, it is essential to normalize the idea of seeking mental health treatment. When we have a medical condition like Diabetes or Hypertension, there's no shame in going to the doctor and/or dietitian for guidance and/or medication management. So, why should there be shame in seeking out help for issues like Depression, Anxiety, or Trauma? I feel that the reason this happens all too often is that we can’t just look inside the brain anytime we want to see what’s going on from a chemical or physiological standpoint. So, because we can’t physically see and/or measure exactly whats going on or why we feel the way we do, it becomes stigmatized as “a figment of our imagination” or “over-exaggerating”. This is beyond infuriating because mental health concerns are just as legitimate and can potentially become just as, if not more devastating than some medical conditions.
In my career, I’ve seen lives destroyed by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Psychosis, Depression, and Anxiety. Although such conditions don’t always lead to debilitation and/or significant decrease in functioning, they sometimes do and this is pathologized by cultural norms in America, especially for men. As noted above, men are expected to sit down and shut up, and not talk about their feelings because…”who cares, just deal and push through”.
In addition to normalizing the idea of seeking help, it is also important to be able to talk with trusted loved ones about what you are going through. Also, find ways to educate yourself about your mental health issues, maybe even do your homework about what condition you’ve been diagnosed with and what to expect in therapy. A wonderful resource for learning more general information about mental health diagnoses and treatments is National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Please see the link for their main website listed here. https://nami.org/Home. Talk with your mental health provider openly about your diagnosis, what to expect in treatment, and any negative feelings that come with attending therapy. Your therapist is there to help. Try to use the time and calm space in therapy sessions to explore the negative stigmas around men seeking mental health care and how this has affected you and your relationships to yourself, others, and the world. This helps the therapist understand your world and your experience so that they can provide the appropriate tools to help. It is also beneficial to outreach others who are having the same or similar experiences as you; this can build compassion for others and feeling more understood and grounded in knowing that you are not alone.
Men, just know that we all have baggage and you are not broken. You deserve to have the felt safety of seeking mental health care and addressing the concerns you have in a productive and healthy way.