Sunlight, Candor and Unashamed Conversation: On Men's Mental Health

introspection Jan 10, 2021

Word of warning, there will be a lot of triggering content.

I attempted suicide two years ago.

If this is news to you…well, you just got a healthy dose of full-frontal nudity!

I have talked about mental health in various forms over a couple of posts in the past. But today, I would like to tackle it head-on.

To be specific: men’s mental health.


Across time, cultures, and religions, it’s the same old story. Societies in which men are not allowed to show emotional frailty. To do so means being less of a man: losing the respect of men around you, and not attracting women.

The issues surrounding men’s mental health (and wellness) contain a multitude of conversations that are so vigorously politicized that it makes people uncomfortable.

It’s easy for you, the reader, to say that that’s the hallmark of immature people. To write it off as men can’t express their feelings well or that if we let them cry: it would be the coveted magic bullet.

I’d like you to think back on your own life and reflect on how you reacted to the simple sadness of a man – how you reacted when you saw a grown man cry. Think about the times you fully (physically and emotionally) supported a man who wasn’t a family member or romantic interest.

In order to try and provide a more balanced perspective on men's mental health, I tapped a close friend of the fairer sex. We’re well aware that our commentary is not perfect and based on anecdotal experiences. These experiences are not meant to be enough to help you make an informed decision. Nevertheless, we thought that it would be a good starting point that could lead to introspection and maybe action down the line.

Additionally, she made all of the lovely artwork in this post.

Edson

Yeah, the transition was jarring. I didn’t know how else to get here. Okay?

We men are guilty of not creating spaces where we can have honest conversations about how we feel and the mental duress we often place ourselves under.

Sometimes the outlet is a female best friend, who is more willing to take on those emotions than our fellow men usually are. Most times, men can only express themselves in one of two ways: either through vices (sex, drugs, and alcohol) or violence (physical and emotional). Both categories have one thing in common: exerting control or losing control temporarily. Sometimes these things aren’t as overt, as some corners of society have tended to normalize racism, sexism, and misogyny.

To seek therapy, to get treatment for a mental illness, or to even have a simple conversation: is to be mocked, disregarded, hazed, or even dehumanized. As such, men never learn to deal with emotions healthily, and never take them seriously. Men learn early on that they need to shut up and serve themselves, their family, their community (but not women cough). Even after men get an official diagnosis, it is difficult for them to manage that situation. We generally think that we and our minds are the same and that, if there’s a major issue with your brain, it implies that there’s a major issue with you (as opposed to a genuine health problem).

In my case, I’ve had people say it is okay to talk about things, and some genuinely do create that (safe) space. But I often reel back.

I reel back because of my past experiences in doing so. Where sharing a worry or even a sliver of mental anguish was met with less than desired results. Friends and family are often at a loss for words or advice. Romantic interests either flee at the first mention of mental health or leave because they prefer someone more secure (and more sure of themselves). Also, I am a victim of molestation which has probably changed how I interact with women and allowed for self-deprecation to seep in. It has left a compendium of scars.

Rationally, I know they care (or cared). But it’s a frame of mind where I have to consciously force myself into, and takes continuous mental effort to sustain. When the going gets tough, I just revert to my usual work hard, play video games, and a ‘be kind to others’ mentality.

Of course, I am also at fault for perhaps even having some sort of expectations. Expectations that have mixed in with low self-esteem. And knowing how hard it must be to put up with this [read: to put up with me] just makes it worse. Having this realization tends to aggravate it. It’s honestly untrodden ground for all of us.

Growing up on this planet means adapting to most social norms to survive and to fit in. To be expected to exist and not feel, unless it serves someone’s interest. As a result, I picked up many habits that we can collectively call toxic (heteronormative) masculinity, habits that I have tried to shake over the years.

It is honestly, it is one of the things that stops me from wanting to have children. I am afraid of passing traits that I may have not recognized as toxic. I am afraid that the world isn’t at a point where we can let men grow healthily.

This, coupled with the universal belief that men are defined by work, has caused havoc with me and many other men. But we’re often too afraid to talk about it lest we get called soft and hear a spiel about "back in my day." I cannot tell you the number of times in the last three years that I have gone to interviews and wasn’t thinking clearly. Because gnawing at the edge of my mind is all the rejections and close calls I’ve had; at the forefront is thinking about how the person interview me is deciding whether my life has meaning or not. I know it is wrong to use work ascribe meaning to my life. But, it is difficult to decouple this. It is difficult to think in any other way when society treats you as less than worthless, if you don’t have some sort of respectable job.

And this is a process that starts as far back as childhood: when we react to a boy and girl getting hurt. With the latter, we’ll give kisses and words of affirmation. With the former, we’ll be tell them to suck it up and BE A MAN. If we attempt anything else, everyone will tell us to stop making the boy soft.

You’re either a REAL MAN (TM), or you’re nothing. You’re a tall, dark, handsome man with muscles coming out of your lips, or you’re a rich tech bro, or you’re nothing.

And this toxic masculinity is reinforced by everyone, even women. Kindly note that women (especially women of color) have been oppressed for hundreds of years, but that is beyond the scope of today’s post.

Women often forget that toxic masculinity is something that they too perpetuate, as well as misogyny to be honest. When you’re steeped in a society sending you messages like this, it’s easy to embrace them even if they hurt you, especially if you are otherwise vulnerable and disenfranchised.

Occasionally, I read or hear about women attempting to get the men they’re in intimate relationships with to open up and be more emotional. While this is a noble effort, it ultimately leads to failure because, oftentimes, the man is not even cognizant of any issues.

This attempt to change is also not backed up by society at large. At least not in on consistently positive manner. To use an extreme example:

One hundred people could validate your emotions and provide you with a haven to open up; but if just one of them uses this information against you, it is easy to slide back into old fears and modus operandi. This is what you know, and bucking the prevailing trend does not work. Those other 100 people who did support you may have never even existed to you.

Now, I am going to take a step back for a bit and bring Nicole into the fold. I’ll be back later.

Nicole


I’m writing from the perspective of someone living with a mood disorder that is very carefully controlled by a life-changing cocktail of medication. And as someone who has watched men she respects and loves be kicked down and trod upon regularly because we live in a world that is almost hostile to the idea of men seeking help with their mental health.

As a woman, I feel that I’d be remiss if I did not acknowledge the women’s complicity in perpetuating the double standard when it comes to men’s mental health. While we might be particularly hard on women who make their mental health status known, we are absolutely unforgiving to men who do the same. For people who have spent their entire lives under the patriarchy’s oppression, we can be surprisingly unempathetic to others who are viewed as lesser than by the same system that has relegated us to a little more than second class citizens.

I was born into a culture and, by default, into an extended family where we do not talk about mental health issues. Heaven forbid if you actually do because you’re probably borrowing problems, or you’re just spoiled because “we don’t have these problems.”

The most heated argument to ever take place between me and a relative started from this (very misguided) person telling me that my mental illness was due to a problem with my faith – a deficient prayer life or a defective belief in God. To say that I had never felt the urge to tell someone to shut the fuck up as strongly as I did at that moment is an understatement. This is not unusual. In fact, it’s more common than one would expect, especially in culturally religious societies like mine (and Ed’s). It’s more unforgiving for men, I suspect. How could a man — the chosen leader, the (future) head of the family unit, the divinely superior one – have a mental illness, a defect of spiritual proportions?

Please, men, listen to me when I tell you that your mental illness is not a reflection of your faith. Ecclesiastes reads like it was written by someone in the middle of a particularly rough depressive episode and existential crisis of monumental proportions. You’re not alone. Your depth of emotion shouldn’t uncharacteristic for men. Jesus wept. You’re in the best company.

Seeking help is scariest the first time you do it. The vulnerability required – the vulnerability men will be ridiculed for showing – makes each time you seek help scary. I know I feel apprehensive each time I’ve had to see a new therapist or psychiatrist, not knowing if they’re going to judge me. This, I imagine, is compounded for men. Please trust me when I tell you that things get infinitely easier when you find the right therapist and / or psychiatrist. If you don’t think you’re ready for that step (or it’s just not feasible for you at the moment), consider confiding in a friend and looking into other healthy ways you can cope while you’re figuring out your next steps. To echo a sentiment Ed has also made, it’s easy to confide in a female friend. If you do so, please be mindful that she is still your friend and not your therapist. Be respectful; ask her if it’s okay to unload on her.

I’ve seen men brush their mental health issues under the rug and continue with life as though nothing is going on. I’ve seen them take up coping mechanisms that might not always be healthy – even ones that become very unhealthy very quickly. We’re all dealing with the repercussions of a highlight reel society in which we’re encouraged to conceal what is perceived as weak. We conceal; we don’t feel. We hide things even from those who love us most. There is strength in being vulnerable about this. There’s strength in talking about how you feel. Granted, not everyone is fortunate enough to have understanding people around them. Well, fuck. It’s rare enough to find people who are understanding in general, let alone about mental health specifically. Trust that they are there and that they’re ready and willing to show you the compassion you might not even know you need just yet.

It goes without saying that relationships in general can become strained when mental health comes into play. Be it due to a lack of acceptance on either side or – in my opinion, worse – a lack of trust.  More important than love (especially in romantic relationships), trust and mutual respect should be at the foundation of your relationship. Your mental health is something that you should be able to trust your partner to safeguard. I don’t think it’s naïve for me to think that this is a reasonable thing to ask, because we know that it would be expected if the roles were reversed.

There’s a trap we all tend to fall into when it comes to relationships. Perhaps it comes from knowing that the other will be empathetic, but we tend to seek out people who also have mental health problems as our partners. There’s nothing wrong with this. It’s just easier to become co-dependent – to make allowances where actions enable unhealthy behavior, to make excuses for shitty treatment. Can you tell I’m speaking from experience? Ha! That’s not to say we aren’t deserving of love. Each and every single one of us is deserving of being loved well and loving well in return. If you’re in a situation where both you and your partner are dealing with your own mental health issues, please seek help (if you can). The health and future of your relationship truly depend on it.

Being honest with yourself about your mental health is difficult. For reasons out of your control, being honest with others about your mental health is paralyzing. I see you. I see your pain and your confusion. I see your loneliness and the gaping emptiness inside. It might not feel like you’ve got people in your corner, rooting for you. Truly, truly, it might not even be the case for you at all. It’s ironic, perhaps, that my faith crisis was due to the same bipolar disorder that requires that I trust that things will get better than this in order to get through most days.

It is my hope that you also find this oftentimes faint thread of faith to carry you through your darkest days and to support you through the days you feel the closest you’ve been to normal in ages – whatever that is.

Edson

Nicole raised excellent points and I would like to add that going untreated for a long time leaves wounds. Time is sometimes not enough of a salve for them. In the worst-case scenarios, they fester, grow, and spread. But, modern life and its practices overtly urges and/or subtly encourages individuals to disregard them.

What will they all think if you take time out for “mental health”? And where will you find the money to afford such a luxury? In too many places, mental wellness services are almost prohibitively expensive and thus seen as a frivolous thing attributed to white people. Hell, some cultures believe it is an affliction that only occurs within white people.

In actuality, this trauma emerges from rigged systems and age-old frameworks: schools and workplaces prioritize certain types of people, establishments discriminate on bases like skin color, gender, sexual orientation, and religious beliefs. Once [trauma] is in place, other systems work to reinforce it, to establish its looming presence as acceptable. To truly get what you want, nay, what you deserve, you have to work harder. At what cost?

For the majority of the first half of 2019, that’s what I tried. I did the whole “be a man” thing and became very well acquainted with Murphy [of Murphy’s Law]. Over two months, almost everything that I had worked towards for about 5 years was ripped away. Violently.

After my suicide attempt, I did not make the mistake of thinking I was ready to take on the world again. But, I very much wanted a certain type of support system in place. I knew healing was not linear…but it turns out that willing yourself into being okay isn’t equivalent to being okay.

I got out of the gutter…and for now, all I have is dirty feet and fate shoveling shit in my face. I don’t have the foggiest idea on how to prevent the cycle from repeating itself, but I don’t want to bother anyone with anything: especially in such a tumultuous year [are you seeing a pattern?] 2019 was objectively the worst year of my life, and 2020 is much better.

Now, I have to remind you that is not a victim contest. And I have to remind myself of two axioms:

  1. Everyone’s mental strength and maximum cognitive load are different.
  2. Women suffer far more than men.

These are not up for debate.

Women are more likely to receive professional help because they are generally more in tune with their emotions, and to receive support from their networks. They have to handle a lot more too – pressing matters such as rape, abuse, and violence. I know that as a man, I am privileged that my greatest threat is just my mind and social pressure. I know that, as a man, it is easy to fall into the trap of assuming those that don't share my gender are exaggerating and vice-versa.

There are tangible and intangible differences in the way we treat men, women, and non-binary people. No, I will not tackle the last part because I will just make a fool of myself.

But just being aware of this can help in being constructive in how to handle those differences.

We live in a capitalist society where there is an unhealthy and unfortunate predilection towards the aforementioned control, money, and success (however you choose to define it). It is needlessly ruthless and savage at times.

Men who struggle need to open up, men who have managed to come out on top need to share that with others who are less fortunate. Anything less than optimal mental health becomes a monstrous mark that loses you friends, family, romantic interests, and work. That is off-base and must change.

There is no clear-cut solution to a status quo built over millennia that created and actively supports certain social norms and gender roles, where physical strength and religious beliefs have often determined the path of development. We need to rebuild society from the ground up.

We need to do better. For everyone.

“What mental health needs is more sunlight, more candor, and more unashamed conversation.” – Glenn Close

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