When I first began experiencing symptoms of depression, I (quite naturally, I might add) shrugged it off. I assumed that most people felt the way I was feeling at the time, and chalked it up to any number of reasons: I was in a transitional period in my life, going through a lot of change and facing plenty of uncertainties. I was shocked when, the more I began to share my experiences with others, the more I saw that they were more unique than I thought. But I also found it interesting that women were far more open to discussing my issues than men were. I don’t believe that was a coincidence.
Men and Mental Health
The relationship men have with mental health is a complicated one not because of what men have to say on the topic, but because of what they don’t say. More than 6 million men in the U.S. suffer from depression every year, and more than 3 million suffer from some form of anxiety disorder. Though these numbers are smaller than those of women, more than 4 times as many men commit suicide compared to women. These numbers don’t add up, and point to a disparity in the men who face mental health issues versus the number who try to take steps to overcome them.
There are plenty of available reasons for why men don’t talk about their mental health issues. From downplaying their symptoms to a reluctance to talk about what’s bothering them, the reasons are plenty that point to an unwillingness for men to talk about any shortcomings in the mental health department. Men are also more likely to report physical symptoms of depression, rather than other symptoms like feelings of sadness or worthlessness. This needs to change.
My Own Experience
I will admit that in the past, I have had feelings of being ‘less of a man’ because of my mental health issues. In addition to not feeling like a worthy person, I didn’t feel like a worthy man. I didn’t think that I was a strong male presence because of my lack of confidence, and it definitely affected how I interacted with people. I think confidence can be equated with masculinity, and I thought that if I didn’t have confidence, I wasn’t much of a person, let alone much of a man. Having the anxiety that I do, I began to look ahead to the future and would immediately cut myself down. If I wasn’t much of a person, how could I be a good boyfriend, or husband one day? How could I raise a child when I thought so little of myself?
I had to separate my struggles from my worth as a man, as a person. It took a long time, but I was able to do it. It also involved surrounding myself with men who also could separate me from the struggles I faced. This, I think, is where society can fail men, and where men can fail themselves. If you’re in an environment where you’ll be emasculated if you bring up any form of weakness, it’s virtually impossible to have any conversation about mental health. ‘Toxic masculinity’ is a fun buzzword to throw around when it comes to talking about other topics like race and gender, but it has just as much to do with how men talk about mental health as anything else.
Changing the Culture
But how do we change the way we talk about men and mental health? It starts with the ability to even have that conversation. It takes a man standing up for himself and telling someone that he’s not okay. And it’s just as important for whomever he’s speaking to not to respond with negativity but with a listening ear. Sometimes, people just want to be heard. To allow a conversation to occur, both sides have to put some of their own opinions aside and just listen to what the other person has to say. I have been blessed to have some of the best male friends I could have asked for during stages of my life when I felt ‘less than’, and they had an enormous impact not only how I viewed myself as a man, but as a person as well. #YouGoodMan is a good example of having that conversation, but we need more.
Every single day, a new generation of young men are facing challenges and struggles that have nothing to do with their worthiness as men, and we need to let them know that it’s okay. People let me know that it was okay, and it changed me for the better. But others are not as fortunate, and we have been complacent with a ‘one-off’ approach to discussing mental health. This conversation must be constant, because mental illness is constant; not everyone has the luxury of dealing with these issues every now and then. Until we can communicate to men that it’s okay not to be okay, not much can change for the way men approach their own mental health issues.