May is Mental Health Awareness Month. When we talk about health, remember that it’s physical + mental, and mental health impacts physical health. Men seek mental health help significantly less often than women, across all channels, traditional therapy, teletherapy, even via apps. If we drill down on why that is, we emerge with an understanding of what actually does help.
Men’s Mental Health Struggles
Does anyone pay attention to what mental health struggles men live with? Dudes go through plenty of shit too: always on call for work, dealing with society’s weird attitudes toward our emotions, wanting to be effective social justice activists, and putting up the front that’s expected from us.
It’s not “just” stress, anxiety, and depression. More specifically, it’s anger management, addictions, loneliness, fear of rejection, and existential shit. Society’s expectations of men keep us from expressing our emotions, and “be a man” is tied to all sorts of unrealistic ideals: be stoic, be strong, hold it together, crush it at video games but don’t be a gamer, feel your emotions but don’t show anger.
The range of emotions it’s supposedly okay for men to feel is too narrow, and society considers most positive emotional coping mechanisms to be feminine (journaling, therapy, touchy-feely heart-to-hearts). Male-friendly coping techniques are limited, which is why so many veer into the self-destructive variety.
Too often, pride, culture, and an inadequate system keep men from engaging with, examining, addressing, or honoring their mental health, which keeps them from getting interpersonal support, developing coping strategies, and feeling normal for their regular, human feelings
In order for us men to manage emotional health better, we need to find ways to work around ingrained obstacles to support.
The Biggest Obstacles
When you don’t notice your emotions, you can’t identify them or let them out to process them, key factors in mental health maintenance. Mental Health America notes, “People who are good at being specific about identifying and labeling their emotions are less likely to binge drink, be physically aggressive, or self-injure when distressed.” The stigma surrounding men’s emotions presents a clear and present threat to our overall wellbeing.
We guys typically struggle to engage with difficult feelings. A lot of the time we don’t even realize we have a problem until it’s too late–we ignore issues until they become crises. For instance, according to the American Foundation For Suicide Prevention, men are three times as likely to die of suicide than women.
We tend to dismiss our own struggles. We are told that sensitivity equates with weakness, and that our feelings make us weak. We are told that all emotions other than anger are unbecoming of men. This leads us to stuff important feelings down, so that we can still feel “good enough.” We aren’t taught coping mechanisms, so we often default to denial. In addition to stigma’s impact on our self-esteem, that stigma also creates a society where men don’t talk about their coping mechanisms other than anger. How can we be expected to deal with our emotions if we were never taught? And what if we only associate emotional expression with unpleasant things, like our mothers and wives nagging us? We don’t want to be “nags” by talking about what’s bugging us.
Why Men Don’t Go To Therapy
Additionally, we don’t feel comfortable with the mental health options available to us. As experts have pointed out, the practice of therapy was invented in a gendered way. Male psychoanalysts developed what would become our mainstream therapy approaches, for use on women, whom they viewed as weak and hysterical.
While therapy no longer follows the misogynist practices of psychology’s forefathers, men still fear judgment for their attendance. As a UT professor of psychology acknowledges in an interview with VICE, “the classic image of therapy (sitting on a couch with the Kleenex next to it, in a room with turquoise walls) may not be the most welcoming place for traditionally-minded men.”
Compounding the external judgment of therapy is the fear of being made uncomfortable during therapy. Psychology’s female-directed focus still lingers with some clinicians and their offices, impairing their ability to tailor traditional techniques to the way men actually think. According to a meta-analysis of multiple studies, “women prefer to focus on emotions as a coping strategy more than men do.” Help-seeking differences between men and women are clearly reflected in the data, and yet we, as a society, expect one set of tools to help men and women equally.
Sure, some men feel comfortable scheduling in regular time to let off emotional steam with a therapist, and that’s been shown to help mental health. However, when men don’t feel comfortable with traditional therapy, what are the existing alternatives?
Alternatives To Therapy That Appeal To Men
If therapy doesn’t provide the ease, flexibility, and de-stigmatized experience guys need, what can men do to take ownership of their mental wellbeing? The Internet Age has brought many attempts at digital solutions.
First, meditation apps ascended to popularity. While good solutions for people already familiar with their own emotions, the idea of engaging in periods of stillness may feel insurmountable to men. A 2017 study out of Brown University even found that men who did participate in mindfulness exercises were less likely to benefit than women.
After meditation apps came the wave of online therapy apps. These removed physical barriers to therapy, especially groundbreaking in rural areas, but didn’t address the cost, stigma, mistrust, and need for scheduling related to therapy. These solutions didn’t add anything to make them more accessible to men specifically.
Chatbots were another wave of innovation that fell flat. And are we surprised? Most chatbot apps are glorified journals. They periodically ask you to rate your mood. They give one of 20 randomized supportive messages. Does anyone imagine they can actually provide the same support as a human? Describing your emotions to others is already difficult, and there’s always a fear you won’t even be able to communicate what you’re feeling. Isn’t the risk of feeling misunderstood higher with chatbots? Seeking support from a chatbot feels futile from the beginning.
One promising alternative is known better in its outdated form, but has seen great efficacy in its high-tech evolution: support groups. Peer support groups can be oases for men, and modern adaptations of the peer support concept give men a way to seek support without disrupting their usual routine.
Support Groups Have Been Shown To Work
While traditional support groups retain the barrier of accessibility, they do approach mental health in a way that seems to work better for men.
In-person support groups are what opened my eyes to a comfortable way of approaching mental health. It was cathartic to let my guard down in front of other regular guys, who aren’t as likely to feel judgy as a therapist. Hearing others’ vulnerable, authentic feelings obliterated my need for repression. Others’ honesty showed me that I was gaslighting myself, denying the reality of my emotions, due to fears of others’ judgment.
I wanted to return to this support group, and I wanted every single one of my guy friends to experience the freedom of shared experience. After living a life thinking I was alone in my emotions, I didn’t want others to suffer alone in fear of judgment anymore. But everyone had no free time, or they lived too far away from any meetings, or were embarrassed to tell their girlfriends and wives.
Pride, stigma, and disconnection were at the root of our characteristic male approaches to emotion, and yet there wasn’t a reliable way we could all access the healing power of support groups. How else can men connect without risk of feeling personally stigmatized for what they share?
My answer to fellow men: remove personal identity. You can safely talk about anything you’re going through, if nobody has any idea who you are.
There is an alternative to traditional therapy that allows men to benefit from getting stuff off their chests when it’s convenient or top-of-mind, and without any risk of judgment, condescension, or identification. Mental health treatment for men should capture the effect of an in-person support group, except with flexibility and ease.
Supportiv Is A Better Version of Support Groups For Men
I’m one of the creators of Supportiv, the anonymous support network that operates 24/7 with less than a minute wait time. Here’s why it’s better than everything else out there:
- There is zero planning involved. Go when you want, leave when you want.
- It’s easy. No profile to create, no pain-in-the-*ass forms to fill out.
- You don’t even have to type out a single full sentence. There are prompts to help you describe what you’re going through.
- It’s anonymous, so no one can judge you.
- You get to see how many other people actually feel the same way you do, even if they’d never admit it in person.
Why Anonymous, Online Peer Support Works So Well For Men
At Supportiv, you get perspective to reassess just how normal your emotions are, in a space where nobody is worried about hiding their own reality. And you can work through tough feelings and depressing situations with others who may have been there, too.
With 57% of their user base being male, Supportiv has been featured in Men’s Health, Entrepreneur, Health, Business Insider and more, as a tool that guys feel comfortable using to manage their mental wellbeing.