Our society encourages men to be strong and silent with their emotions. This type of attitude is dangerous to men who struggle with depression.
I had hit bottom. I still remember thinking that maybe the pain would stop if I were to end it all. My depression was visible and palpable; at times I felt as though I was drowning. At other times I felt as if I was standing on top of a mountain, screaming for help at the top of my lungs, but the people going about their lives in the valley below could not hear me. I was screaming for help, and no one was coming to my rescue.
It was an awfully trying time, a time when I had difficulty remembering why I was alive or understanding if anyone truly needed me. It was a time when I often thought that perhaps everyone’s lives would be easier if I just wasn’t around.
It was a time when the message that had me indoctrinated became clear: My mistakes were not in my actions; my whole being was defined by my failures and faults. I was the mistake.
I am a very emotional person. I feel things strongly, and I am very sensitive. I am also hyper aware of how others feel, and I can read people extremely well, which, for someone who hasn’t entirely grasped the concept of resiliency, is somewhat of a curse. But I am a woman. And somehow, in our Western culture, it has become commonplace to view women as emotional.
Society expects women to wear their hearts on their sleeves. Whereas this stereotype can be damaging to the women who aren’t demonstrative of their emotions and prefer to keep their feelings to themselves, something good has come of it: It is socially acceptable for women to admit they are having a hard time emotionally, and to seek help for mental health issues.
I still remember my doctor’s words after I described my hypothyroidism symptoms, “I hope it’s OK to say this. I’ve known you a long time, and you seem . . . stressed.” I broke down, acknowledging my stressors. I had recently lost a friend to a car accident, I was overwhelmed parenting a young child while being pregnant and depleted . . . and the list continued. I remember my doctor being compassionate and not surprised that I was emotionally and physically exhausted, but I wonder if the doctor’s response would have been the same if I were a man.
Somehow, we have come to accept that “emotional” men are not the norm, and that it’s highly unusual for a man to cry in public. Our society encourages men to be strong and silent with their emotions. This type of attitude is dangerous to men who struggle with depression. Many men hide their own emotional duress because they don’t want to be perceived as weak. In our Western culture, when a man seeks help it is akin to asking someone else to solve his problems. And men are supposed to be able to solve everything alone – no instruction manual nor helping hand needed.
This stereotype may be one of the explanations for male suicide becoming the invisible epidemic it is today. Worldwide, men commit suicide at a rate 3 to 7.5 times that of women. Since depression puts a person at risk of suicide, it only makes sense that men who are depressed should seek psychiatric care.
Yet, when our culture teaches men to suppress their feelings – giving cues from the innocent “boys don’t cry” on the playground to the “you’re such a sissy” comments in high school, to the pointed stares when a grown man demonstrates his vulnerability – it is almost a given that men who need help the most are the least likely to seek professional help.
Some people say, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” in an attempt to cheer up another person. But in the case of depression and other mental illness, when seeking help is considered a sign of weakness, and suppressing emotion is considered a virtue, what doesn’t kill you . . . eventually will.
To lower the suicide rate of men, a cultural paradigm shift must take place, not simply about mental health, but about gender roles as well. When you add the stigma of mental illness to the belief that seeking help is an attack on one’s manhood, you have a recipe for disaster when it comes to losing men’s valuables lives and contributions to society.
It’s not enough to reach out to a friend who has depression – though encouraging that friend to seek professional help is critical. We must consistently encourage men to share their feelings, from allowing our young sons to cry and express themselves, to having open discussions about mental health in the workplace.
I want to see a world where it is as acceptable for a man to cry as it is for a woman. I want to see a world where men’s true thoughts and feelings are valued. I want to see a world where seeking medical treatment for any health condition is a sign of strength, because the brain is part of the body, and there shouldn’t be a distinction between treating it and treating any other body part or system.
I want to see a world where we value every life, one where men feel safe to express their feelings, including fear, anxiety, and sadness. A world where we encourage men to allow themselves to be vulnerable and seek help for depression. I want to see a world with fewer suicides.
How will you help to create this world?
Photo credit: Flickr/Chris Connelly