The other day my son told me that they can’t cry because they are not babies any more, and I leapt at the opportunity to tell him that it’s always ok to cry. If you are feeling hurt, or sad, or angry, or even happy. It’s always ok to cry. I went on to say that even I cry, and his dad cries. Everybody cries.
I’ve alluded to it before, how we are socialized differently, and how little boys are taught that it’s not ok to cry, or get hurt. And as men grow older, they are taught that it’s not ok to feel big emotions. No one wants to be accused of being hysterical (a word which has its origins in the anatomy of a woman – the Greek word for uterus). Historically, for a man to do anything like a woman is bad, don’t run like a girl, or throw like a girl, or cry like a girl.
But when it comes to mental health, the rate of suicide amongst men is double the rate it is amongst women, however, the rate of depression diagnosis amongst men is half the rate it is amongst women. Surely, there is something wrong here?
If so many men are in such despair that the only way they see out is to end their lives, why are there not more male diagnosis of depression, of feeling empty? If we could treat more men for depression, then we could reduce the rate of suicide amongst men.
But to do this, we need to change our view of mental health amongst men. Seeking help in the form of therapy or other methods of mental health treatment should not be seen as something only women do. Men need to know about the benefits of talk therapy, and share it with their friends. Men need to learn the symptoms of mental illness, so that they can recognize it in themselves, but also in their friends.
There was a great campaign in the UK on bar coasters, where it asked questions like, “are you feeling a lot more angrier than usual?”; “do you not enjoy the things you used to enjoy?”; “are you feeling like you don’t fit in with your friends?”. These are the type of questions men should be asking themselves.
Depression isn’t only about sadness, and feeling weak, and something that only women experience. Depression is also increased anger and irritation. Feeling nothing. Decreased motivation. Just feeling off. Feeling like you don’t want to be with your friends, or that something is just different when you’re with them.
We need to teach men that it’s ok to not be ok. That it’s ok to cry. That it’s ok to ask for help. And to seek professional help.
The societal expectations of men are to be the heroes, the ones who stay strong for their families. But struggling with a mental illness leaves you feeling weak. And unable to take care of yourself, let alone your family. And because they’ve been raised to not talk about these feelings, and these fears of not living up to these societal expectations, all of these feelings are repressed and turned inwards. They may come out as anger or irritation, or the utter despair that leads to suicide.
Men learn early on, that it’s not ok to be introspective, to journal to dissect your thoughts, so why would talk therapy work? Women spend hours talking to their friends to solve problems and to discuss their lives “ad nauseum”. But for men, when there is a problem, they are taught that they need to man up, and punch things and fight. But the fact is, you cannot punch your mental illness.
We need to challenge the toxic masculinity that says we need to mock our friends for seeing a therapist, or for expressing emotions. Because that is what is causing the underrepresentation of male mental illness. Men are not doing well, and don’t want to express it to anyone for fear of being judged, or accused of “acting like a woman”.
We need to raise our boys to teach them that it’s ok to cry, no matter what age they are. It’s ok to feel sad, but it’s also ok to feel lonely, to feel empty. But most importantly, we need to teach them that when life is too much, we should seek help, from our family, our friends, or professional help if that’s what we need.