Breaking

Men & Mental Illness: the Stigma Around Asking for Help

Intersections / May 31, 2016

“Don’t be a girl.”
“You have to be a man.”
“Big boys don’t cry.”

These seemingly innocent words are more harmful than they sound. Hearing those words can cause so much invisible damage – but just because it isn’t seen doesn’t mean it’s not significant.

A young boy hears these words, said by his steadfast uncle at his father’s funeral. He had wanted to cry, to talk about his feelings to anyone who would understand them. His mom is sitting in the front row, weeping, looking quite broken. Who wouldn’t be? She always talked about how she was feeling, but dad was the quiet, stern type. In this moment, the boy learns what society feels a man’s role is – no tears, stand tall, because mother can’t function without a man of the house.

Fast forward to the boy grown up, married, and with a family of his own. He’s a great husband, but over time he’s developed a drinking problem. Not too bad, but noticeable. His wife asks him to talk to a counselor, because it seems there’s some possible underlying reason. The man’s job is great, his family is wonderful, and his buddies don’t seem to think anything is wrong. What’s a few brews with the guys every weekend? He doesn’t talk about the emptiness he feels, the lurking sensation that he is missing something in life, even though everything is as perfect as he dreamed it could be. So he doesn’t talk to a counselor, he keeps on drinking. The drinking is the only thing that seems to help drown that feeling. He finally gets the real help he needs after a failed attempt at suicide by a bullet.

This story isn’t real… but it could be. I wrote the story based on the numerous articles and statistics that I read in my research. In fact, it’s possible that it might be someone’s story, somewhere in the U.S.

Many pieces of information I had found all had a base foundation. In an interview with a Reverend Doctor C, he emphasizes that “there’s definitely proof of chemical imbalances in the brain, and trauma can cause negative effects. Also, environment and behavioral causes can be a factor from my understanding.”  It doesn’t matter what gender, age, social status, race, or sexual orientation someone has, mental illness doesn’t pick and choose. What differs is how the person is affected by their mental illness. Men in particular tend to hide or ignore their mental illness, or turn to substance abuse, and are more likely to commit suicide than women. Social roles do play a big part in the grand scheme of men’s mental health. Rev. Dr. C elaborates, “It [pressure on men] seems to be a trend. There is a stigma to seek help… men like to fix things on their own, or go to another man for advice. Often, therapy and medication, or seeking help, is viewed as a sign of weakness to reveal personal thoughts. Men, in general, have this fear of showing weakness.” D, from a medical background, agrees with that sentiment adding, “It’s a social stigma, where guys don’t need emotional help, society says they shouldn’t need therapy… and guys are expected to sort out their own problems.”

Whether you are an open-minded male or a more “traditional” male, there are still societal rules you’re expected to follow. In addition, if you’re from certain cultures, the expectation is even more complicated and unyielding to avoid any whisper of weakness, because there are so many more social role barriers. As it is, men all over the world are expected to avoid any display of effeminate traits pertaining to their culture, which means fix-it-yourself tough manly man, and macho men like that aren’t ones to share their emotional problems and feelings. [Author’s note: If that’s what you’re happy being, then good! Different roles make the world function, but it should never be forced on a male who doesn’t want that role.] When that role and image of the machismo man is forced on a male, it will literally make them sick.

It’s not just how boys are raised, though. Women complain about the false image of a “real woman” in magazines, but there are many males who are intimidated by that “perfect man” on the front cover of a periodical. The pressure is on, and it’s everywhere.

There’s a large stigma to mental illness in general, and it doesn’t help that it’s normally presented as a woman’s problem – especially when it comes to depression and anxiety. It’s different when it’s a physical ailment, such as a broken leg or flu, but the stigma behind mental illness has often been equated with the stigma of HIV or AIDS. Yet mental illness is an illness of the brain, an organ in the body, and it is something that society has long taught is a thing to be ashamed of. Even though it is, as P says, “ridiculous to refuse help for something you can’t control in your brain,” much of the suffering provided by the mental illness is thought to have been brought on by the sufferer themselves in outsiders’ eyes.

How can we, society as a whole, break the stigma? “Treat people like people, not like a specific cookie-cutter gender role. Gender has no basis in mental health concerns. Thankfully, it seems change will eventually happen regardless of society’s current views, so hopefully gender discrimination in society will eventually be an outdated mode of thought,” D offers. What was done with cancer when it was highly stigmatized? Or even homosexuality? We meet “normal” people or even role models who are struggling and healing alongside us. “…More of men admitting in television that they take medication for mental stability,” is something M would like to see helping break the stigma. In fact, recently, people such as the strong Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson revealed his experiences with depression from a rough life. Former Detroit Lions NFL quarterback Eric Hipple even wrote a book on his times with depression, Real Men Do Cry, and even travels the country talking and presenting life with mental illness. These two men are only a couple of examples, there have been so many more men in the sight of popular media who are beginning to break down the stigma by putting themselves on the line. At times they’re met with positive reinforcement, but the times they’re met with negativity proves even more how we need to break the stigma.

While role models are great to change views on mental illness in men, that’s not all that needs to come into play. How do you garner attention in the first place? If there’s a headline about a hockey player from the NHL confessing his struggles with depression, it’s just a story, an anecdote. How about some numbers and graphs? Everyone loves a good pie chart. Women and men process information differently (mostly because of how society leads gender roles), but the best option is to work with that information until society gets fixed. One of the most valuable resources, as P puts it, is “disseminating information, which is the answer to a lot of things – when people know the facts.” Publicizing statistics and thinking of offering therapy in a psychological market-mind can be more productive for attracting men with mental illness to getting the help they need. The information needs to be researched, and directed to the target audience the way a Super Bowl commercial caters to the viewers in between the game – it’s a business perspective, and it even crosses hard to reach cultural barriers such as the stigma of mental illness in Asian and Latin American families.

In addition, some men may still be quantifying their mental illness by using a checklist which is generalized, and often does not reflect how, for example depression, is presented in males. Many men don’t cry or show an outward sadness as women who are depressed do – they are more likely to turn to self-medication, substance abuse, violence, or even stop showing most emotions altogether. Some men are so misled as to what mental illness is, that they are not even familiar with what they are feeling, are unable to describe it, and it isn’t their fault.

Yet, information specialization might not be enough. What about the way we do therapy? T has some insight from experience, “Therapy, I did not like at all. However, this was not because of any existing stigma in my mind that guys don’t do therapy, it is because I have been to therapy [routines] before twice and have had several friends and family members go to therapy, and without exception in those cases and mine, it failed and made problems worse not better. After, my feelings [on therapy] have remained unchanged, mostly because so far I have seen no positive effect from my therapies undergone by myself.” What about the way we describe it? There’s a recently created phenomenon of revolutionizing mental health care according to what is a more comfortable way to talk about problems based on gender (as a generalized “traditional” male’s role). “A large number of psychiatrists try to talk about women’s brains versus men’s brains – heart versus brain, Venus versus Mars, spaghetti versus waffles, computers versus boxes. Basically, it’s a theory of women’s brains being busy and multi-tasking, and sometimes hitting an information overload, and men’s brains being like boxes, only able to unpack one at a time. Each box is a subject… men offer men fixes instead of talking it out, so when I know a man is going through a time when he needs counseling, I will tell him I’d like to talk to him – that there’s an issue, versus telling him about his feelings. Men like to fix broken things, they like to organize dysfunction. When they come in for counseling, it’s normally for a surface issue, and we eventually get down to a deeper root of the problem in our sessions… there needs to be education on the importance of seeking help, and a better understanding of the benefits of seeking help,” Rev. Dr. C advises. Treatment has begun to only recently be presented in a men-only forum-style therapy, where men are able to come together as a group, and see that they are not alone in their struggles with mental illness. There’s no need to defend oneself against like minds, and there’s no awkward one-on-one situations to contend with. Any feelings or behavior regarding the mental illness in the therapy group are normalized and lose their necessity for secrecy. It also helps the therapist show the group that much of the reaction to the problem is common male behavior – simply not talked about before.

As with everyone, though, to create change and get help for mental illness, one must be willing to admit they need help and must be willing to seek that help. Rev. Dr. C confirms, “As much as men can be reached with more appealing terms to get them into help, it’s still up to the man to take that first step.” Mental illness is different for everyone, and the type of medication or therapy that’s needed is different for each person. Even T offers, “I say get it done if you need it. And don’t resist it because of preconceived negative opinions. Really give it a try. In my case it did not work out, but that doesn’t mean it will fail for you.” For the men who miss out on therapy, here are some scary (and heartbreaking) facts:

  • Women show more warning signs of suicide than men.
  • Men are much more likely to act on suicidal thoughts than women are.
  • Men may not be as likely as women to attempt suicide, but men are four times more likely to complete the suicide than women.

Here are some statistics and resources if you want to see more:https://us.movember.com/mens-health/mental-health

National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI):http://www.nami.org/

If you or a loved one need help for suicidal thoughts (there is a hotline and a text line):http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

Sarah
Sarah Neat-Sullivan is a varied freelance artist and craftster, with a BA in Visual Arts. She utilizes her diagnosis to educate, and advocate for fellow Autistic girls. This Florida native lives with her understanding, Neurotypical husband and their myriad of furkids.

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