BY: QUENTIN STUCKEY
It’s remarkable how much mental health is becoming more open and less stigmatized. The popular tweet across the globe that surfaces on the International Bell Let’s Talk Day is typically: “It’s okay not to be okay.” Truer words were never spoken. Part of the reason why mental health disorders are so stigmatized is because we instinctively believe as a society that showing weakness of any kind is never an option. A Western, capitalist environment commands that we be pulled a thousand different directions while maintaining a picture-perfect lifestyle, never whining or admitting that we’re emotionally suffering.
Though I am all in favour of an annual day dedicated to the open discussion of mental health, one thing struck me about this past discussion hosted over a month ago. Scrolling through all the tweets and statuses and reading all the courage and honesty of people was heartwarming and also heartbreaking. I realized that a good majority of this openness about mental health came from females. There were indeed males out there that day who were willing to talk about their problems and experiences (Howie Mandel being an example) but still why were females more willing to engage in this type of discussion more so than males?
The answer to this question goes back to traditional gender roles and characteristics. Women are typically seen as maternal, emotional and weak, while men are typically seen as assertive, independent and strong. We know now not to take those stereotypes seriously, but it’s because of these stereotypes that males will often avoid admitting that anything is emotionally or psychologically wrong.
In a study conducted by psychological researchers James H. Wirth and Galen V. Bodenhausen, it was discovered that gender plays a significant role in a person’s willingness to seek help or be honest about their mental health issues. If a male seeks assistance for his soul crushing depression, he is afraid that this will label him as: “vulnerable” or “a pussy”, threatening his masculinity which is a major component of his identity. As someone who identifies both physically and psychologically as a male, I can tell you from personal experience that this is one hundred percent accurate.
Boys growing up are not always told on their father’s lap that: “Son, in order to be a man you must be dominant, unemotional and tough”. That message is often instilled in our brains through media and in particular social interactions with other males. Male friends are some of the biggest masculine influences, guiding us on the proper masculine actions and decisions. The media, however, is an even greater influence. One of my favourite television shows is the period drama “Mad Men.” Jon Hamm’s portrayal of the confident, womanizing, mysterious Don Draper epitomized what us males are conditioned to strive towards. To be someone like Don Draper is to be powerful, successful and attractive to the opposite sex, but as anyone who has seen the show knows, the protagonist is deeply emotionally scarred partly as a result of his determination to fulfill his role as “a man.” Draper may be a character circa post-WWII American society, but the male stereotypes remain to this day.
As a child, I always withheld my emotions not because of anything my father ever told me but because I had to be “a man.” Scraping knees or getting bullied is enough to bring any person to tears, but I couldn’t because I had to be “a man.” Getting rejected by women I chose to open up to and be vulnerable with only further solidified that if I wasn’t “a man” then I was going to be lonely. For many males that I know, they would rather be depressed, anxious and bulimic than end up lonely or isolated because of the stigma surrounding their issues.
I can still count the number of times I was called a pussy for being emotionally available. Constantly viewing myself as a failure for not being able to be rough or dominant enough to obtain the approval of my peers. It’s a self defeating paradox. Personifying gender stereotypes to feel accepted which involves concealing emotional suffering, only to end up feeling unaccepted by the one person who matters: you.
There is hope however. It really doesn’t have to be this way. As the conversations continue, the male stigma surrounding mental health will further be lifted. Mental health impacts both genders, no gender is exempt from these issues but men, in particular, ought to be more vocal. Talking about it is the first step. Let’s encourage everyone to participate in the conversation.
To learn more about men’s mental health, including male eating disorders, check out this episode of Fully Exposed Podcast.