Men are subjected to a culture where the standards of masculinity are literally making them sick.
Mental Health disorders are common throughout the United States, affecting tens of millions of people each year. But only half of those affected receive treatment. It is imperative that we look at gender differences in not only the experience of mental illness but also in the ability to get help and engage in treatment when necessary.
Depression in men is not uncommon and often goes unrecognized and untreated. Research has shown that while men develop the standard symptoms of depression, they often experience it differently and may have different ways of coping. In men, depression can be a serious medical condition. More than six million men suffer from depression each year. Many men try to deal with it on their own, but depression symptoms can make them chronically miserable. Depression consequently also puts men at risk for suicides.
Although women are more likely to attempt suicide, men are more likely to lethally complete it when they do make an attempt; ending their life in an instant, without any second chances and usually without many or even any pervious cries for help, leaving loved ones shocked and bewildered. Sadly, men have to hide behind the facades they feel impelled to build. It is usually very difficult for men to come forward, open up, and engage in some form of mental health treatment. Men also have traditionally shied away from therapy because talking about their feelings is viewed as negative and non-masculine – as going against the expected male image.
We have to accept that we live in a culture where men often feel pressure to conform to an unrealistic macho image. The measure of their masculinity seems to have an inverse relationship to the expression of their vulnerability, and it is literally making them sick. Real men are not supposed to be weak, break down, or cry. They are supposed to be invincible, unbreakable super-heroes. Except, they are not. They are only human.
Sometimes men make it to my door either because a loved one forced them to “get help” and so they do — kicking and screaming in silent protest. Other times it’s because they are dragged in by their significant other as part of a couple’s therapy session.
All too often, they come in when things have really hit rock bottom. Things are so out of control, and the impact on their lives so severe, that their reluctance and hesitation about “getting help” is trumped by an un-escapable, undeniable painful reality that sets in and kicks them in the face. They reach a point when they can’t keep up the facade of being a “man,” being strong and holding it all together ALL the time, and continue with their lives anymore.
Once they are engaged in any kind of treatment, much energy goes into maneuvering around co-workers, friends, family and significant others so no one will ever find out their shameful secret; that they are seeing a psychiatrist or therapist. The stigma around mental issues is still prevalent amongst men and women, but it inequitably stronger in men.
Men are not given permission to be vulnerable in society and any interpretation of vulnerability is considered a weakness. It is not readily accepted and often judged. Men have become OK with many things, but being considered weak isn’t one of them.
Men are reluctant to open up or share their feelings simply because they would therefore be labeled as weak. More to the point, they would see themselves as weak and that’s the problem. This is so dangerous because what can start off as mild depression, or mild anxiety, or some difficult life stressor that needs support, can easily and quickly escalate to substance abuse, alcoholism, sex addictions, unhappiness, unnecessary pain and anguish and in the worse cases, suicide. It’s a miserable dark hole and once you’re in the grips of a dark depression it becomes harder to get out.
I do believe that as mental health awareness increases and everyone becomes more open and understanding of mental health issues, that the de-stigmatization will allow more men to be open, to say when they can’t handle something or they’ve had enough. Suffering in silence is what leads to broken marriages, broken homes, and broken lives.
I fundamentally believe that we have to begin changing our language as a society. Particularly I ask men to redefine what it means to “toughen up,” “man up” or “be a “man.” When men use this language what connotation does it have for other men?
I’ll tell you a secret as a psychiatrist. As the video below illustrates, there is absolutely nothing soft or weak about having a panic attack. It’s the worst feeling in the world. People literally feel as if they are going to die. Many patients say they would rather endure any physical pain than that feeling of impeding, overwhelming doom. Similarly, there is nothing weak about being in the stronghold of a depression. It’s a state of existence that can be excruciatingly painful.
And PTSD is a disease of tough men, not weak ones. It is a disease so powerful that it continues to destroy the lives of our service men and women after they have left combat. Yes, it is at times more painful then the thrusts of war and combat itself. No, mental illness is not for the weak minded or light hearted. It’s a battle that any real “man” can and should bravely feel good about conquering.
It is up to all of us, but especially men, to change the way we speak. Our words are powerful. Use them wisely. You would be amazed at how impactful this little change can be.
Bell “Let’s Talk” campaign is a national Canadian mental health campaign dedicated to bringing awareness and funding to mental health and the advocating for the active de-stigmatization of mental Health issues. They have produced a series of videos that are extremely powerful and relevant.
This video is a simple, yet perfect, example of how the stereotypes of what it means to be a man can be detrimental and problematic in our society. It illustrates the power of language and the significance of recognizing that even the smallest words can make the biggest difference.
Do you want future generations of boys to grow up in mental and emotional prisons?
It’s OK to be scared. It’s OK to be in pain. It’s OK to be overwhelmed. It’s OK that you “don’t got it” all the time. It’s OK if sometimes life throws you enough hurdles that it has caused the “unbreakable” to break.
Be honest with yourself and others about how disappointments, life events, life stressors, death, work, and failed businesses and relationships can and do take a toll on you. Its time to teach future generations of boys that they don’t have to grow up in emotional prisons. It’s time to teach the world that what makes you a man is manning up to what’s really going on inside your mind and heart.
It’s recognizing that you are human with wounds and flaws. That you are not invincible and don’t have to pretend to be. It’s time to take the mask off. It will take a different kind of courage for a man to take his first steps to becoming vulnerable. But we can start with our words and changing the way we speak, view and treat mental illness or any psychological issues. Because the way we speak has consequences in someone else’s life.
Photo: Getty Images