Trigger warning: The following blog contains discussions about suicidal ideation and of suicide itself. Some readers may find this distressing.
“Maybe we are not wired to ask for help.”
From asking “When did you last cry?” to “What stops you from sharing your distress?”, this heartfelt confession from a guy friend left me speechless for a moment.
“We have tear ducts too. It is just that instinctively they’re reserved for happy overwhelming moments.”, he added.
Match wins, a long-awaited recognition, reunion with a long-lost beloved friend, a soulful music note that strums the heartstrings, holding your baby for the first time – what was your moment of happy tears?
Mental health isn’t considered a gender-specific issue, but there is promising evidence to date – both experimental and anecdotal – where male-friendly approaches have been tried. Not enough attempts within mainstream services are done yet to design, deliver, and research gender-specific interventions for men in comparison with traditional approaches.
It is important to comprehend that certain symptoms manifest differently in men than women. These men are our significant others, friends, fathers, brothers, sons, and people we care for. More than 6 million men suffer from depressive disorders and many remain undiagnosed; yet, they do not promptly seek help, irrespective of age, nationality, or ethnic or racial background. Possible reasons behind the reluctance to ask for help are the stigmas and the conditioning to internalise emotions.
Statistics and Stigma
We often associate sadness and hopelessness with depression. Men, more often, would be angry, aggressive or completely withdrawn with no interest in anything whilst undergoing depression, making it easier to misread the signs that something is wrong. Some men turn to drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism.
As per the WHO statistics, suicide rates for men are significantly higher in most countries. Male suicide methods are often more violent, making them more likely to be completed before anyone can intervene.
I haven’t read a more apt explanation than David Wallace's: “The person in whom its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill themselves the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.”
Research conducted by Mind in 2017 that consisted of 15,000 employees across 30 organisations showed that men are twice as likely to have mental health problems due to their job. In a survey done in the UK, 61% of men said they feel like they can’t discuss their mental health problems with their boss because they feel like their professional abilities would be questioned, their boss wouldn’t understand or their employer would judge them.
Growing up between society’s expectations and stereotyped gender roles, it is considered a sign of weakness if men have emotional issues. Vulnerability is scary for all humans, and in particular for men. They are not supposed to show their fear; otherwise, how else would they be the main character who saves the world?
Even though the boundaries of traditional gender roles seem to be blurring, research finds that it’s mostly a lip-service: “Yeah, yeah, we all go along with the whole touchy-feely 'men shouldn't be afraid to show their emotions' thing, but secretly when you see a man blubbing, you think 'wimp'!" This research is a decade old though. Has anything changed since then? Well, maybe if they cry in perceived masculine settings – a competitive sport, for example – then men are given a buffer from the negative consequences associated with violating gender stereotypes.
When the war broke out between Ukraine and Russia a year ago, men between 18 and 60 years of age were not allowed to leave the country. Today, Ukraine is facing a mental health crisis among soldiers and civilians. Apart from anxiety, PTSD, and other war-related stress, some families are breaking up too.
However, it doesn’t take a war to get mental health issues. A survey done in the UK revealed the biggest causes of mental health issues in men’s lives are work-related stress (32%), finances (31%) and their health (23%).
Why would an ailment of the brain be treated less seriously than an illness of the heart?
“Nobody believed me because I was a boy” – one of my close friends suffered sexual abuse at his home as a kid. Nobody believed him when he tried to tell how a close female relative was the perpetrator. Decades later, he still suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and insomnia. However, that is veiled quite remarkably behind layers of his devil-may-care personality.
“I stopped looking in mirrors and rage consumed me.” – another friend who recovered from a life-threatening illness. He lost a lot of weight and developed skin allergies. He couldn’t fathom how depression was expressing itself outwardly in the form of anger towards himself and others. Thankfully, counselling sessions and medications have helped him, to a large extent.
There are many such real-life experiences that remind us that matters like body dysmorphia, body-image issues, intimate partner violence, and trauma inflicted by sexual violence also affect men. To some, it can be embarrassing to discuss the trauma because of the stigma in society. Being ostracised would only add to the misery so it's no wonder why the majority of men chose silence and self-repair over all the other seldom available sensitive alternatives.
Suffering in silence isn’t a healthy option for the men in our lives.
Psychiatrists are using tailored approaches and interventions and not just talking therapies when it comes to treating men with mental health concerns. More research is needed but there are helpful resources available; for instance, a BPS research paper shares guidelines on psychological interventions to help male adults. Recent preliminary analyses of individual male-tailored mental health programs show promising results for the treatment of depressed men.
Movements like Movember across the world help to raise awareness on the issues of men’s health. Get involved in awareness initiatives.
Leaders at workplaces can take the baton of change by framing conversations that resonate with their male colleagues encouraging them to share their emotions around work challenges. Mental wellbeing should not just be a tokenism. Perhaps, offer confidential mental health counsellors as an added benefit instead of one-sided sessions.
If a man in your life is undergoing mental health issues and is not willing to get professional treatment, maybe begin with getting help on their physical symptoms like exhaustion or ongoing headaches and alert the doctor about the mental health signs you notice.
Offer a listening ear, support, patience and encouragement to open up.
If you are struggling, reach out for help to mental health professionals, support groups, and helplines – wherever your comfort lies. Medications, psychotherapy, and counselling work.
…if you feel exhausted and bullied by the constant misandry (and misogyny) of ‘man up’, please know that the issue isn’t your emotional ability. If the fear of being left out from the 'man's world' stops you from searching for answers, then know that the issue is with the misinterpretation of masculinity by most men around you and not your manliness.
There are many safe spaces out there where you can and you should reach out. Rough patches hit all of us without discrimination. Seeking help, and showing emotions in public won’t make you anything else but human. And to be human in this world isn’t less of a feat. Wouldn’t you reach out for help when you fracture your leg? How is the brain splinter any less of a concern? Even when nothing is broken, you take care of your physical health. Include mental wellbeing too.
Next time you see a little boy in distress, comfort him. Repeat for big boys too.
May we see the world with nothing else but the lens of compassion!
If you are struggling and in need of support, below are a few incredibly helpful organisations that provide both resources and direct help:
Shout Crisis Text Line — you can text Shout to 85258 if you are experiencing a personal crisis, are unable to cope and need support.
Talk to the Samaritans — they offer 24-hour emotional support in full confidence. You can call them for free on 116 123
CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) offers a chat and hotlines service from 5pm to midnight
Papyrus (Suicide Prevention Charity) offers similar service for adolescents and young adults under the age of 35