Esteemed gentlemen, it has been a while since I have allowed myself the privilege to write to you.
The past two years have been a season of busyness, change, and growth for me. I moved across the country. I completed a masters degree in public health. For the first time in my life my worldview was in the minority. It has been the most challenging season in my life so far.
And part of that challenge was my work. I was fortunate to get a job doing research with one of my professors. Our research centered on mental health in the male population at our university. It was interesting work and it opened up opportunities for me to co-author two research papers and to present our findings at multiple conferences. It was exciting but also very challenging.
From my thoughts and research, this post will only serve as the slightest glimpse into the mental health world. My hope is that these thoughts will inspire you to think about mental illness and to join in, or begin, the conversation this country so badly needs: how do we handle mental illness?
My research made me realize how poorly we advocate for mental health, prevent cases, provide care for those with mental illnesses, and even discuss the topic of mental health. We demonize those with mental health issues while ignoring the fact that the majority of us will suffer some form of mental illness in our lifetime. Any time the entertainment industry needs an excuse for a bad guy they throw around words like psychotic, anti-social, delusional, multiple personality, or some such thing with zero regard for how that shapes society’s perception of those who might be depressed, let alone an actual psychopath.
And the blame doesn’t just fall on “Hollywood”. We do this frequently in our own conversation. Anyone who doesn’t see a situation as we do is deranged or otherwise mentally incompetent. The problem is I have met more bad people who would be deemed “in their right mind” than those whom I could categorically claim were out of theirs. We are terrible judges, we can’t forget that.
We are terrible judges because we lack knowledge; we lack knowledge because we don’t discuss the issue. It is interesting that mental illnesses are incredibly common but we talk about them like they are a rarity. 1 in 6 adults (18.3%) living in the U.S. have been diagnosed with a mental illness at some point during their life. Even still as a society we are hush-hush about the issue, seeming only to discuss it when it serves a purpose as a scapegoat, or to drive an agenda, following a disaster (read in any U.S. mass shooting in at least the last 5 years).
People tend to shroud things that are uncommon and make them feel uncomfortable in mystery, disallowing any discussion. Why then this lack of conversation about something as common as mental health?
I don’t fully know but one reason is the deeply personal nature of mental health. One’s psychology dictates how they view the world after all. You tell me my heart is failing and I can rationalize that; my heart is a pump and it is going bad, I’m distressed but not offended. You tell me there is something wrong with my mind and now I’m offended. You haven’t just said that a part is defective; you have stated that my very way of rationalizing the world is off. In the case of the heart, I can’t trust my heart anymore; in the case of the mind, I question whether I can trust myself anymore.
There is an extra level of finesse and care that must be present when talking about matters of the mind, but the only way to make something normal feel normal is to talk about it. Societally this has been slowly changing but for decades we have simply not discussed mental illnesses which left many to suffer in silence as the problems were real but the conversation was non-existent.
Another concept couples with our lack of knowledge to further decrease our chances of doing anything for mental illnesses. These types of illnesses are highly stigmatized in our culture. For clarity sake, stigma is a perceived or real feeling of negativity toward something; shame is a great synonym. This is a very simplistic definition but the theoretical study of stigma is too vast and complicated to do justice to in this post.
Stigma is that feeling that no one will trust, or like, you if you are diagnosed with a mental illness. It is a poison. It is a sort of barricade we put in our own minds, often based on what we experience, with the false expectation that what others don’t know can’t hurt me. It drives us to do foolish things in order to “cover up” the mess of our lives.
In regard to mental health, stigma is particularly potent in males. This is at least partly because the notions of masculinity increase the stigma associated with mental illnesses. Increased stigma decreases the likelihood that people will admit having or seek help for a mental concern.
Masculinity encompasses all the things that are quintessentially manly. This includes excessive shows of physicality, self-reliance, not admitting problems, repressed emotions, acting thoughtless, being a poor conversationalist, and being practical and/or logical above all, among others. You might notice that most of the ideas relate to power or strength in some way. In short, men are powerful and to diminish their power is to make them not a man, and in fact useless.
To be clear, I am not an expert in the theoretical concept of masculinity, it is actually very complicated. However, what I do know through my lived experience and research is that masculinity can be, and often is, damaging. If you look back at the list many of those notions in moderation are helpful but if taken to an extreme are bad. For instance, self-reliance is a good thing but coupled with not admitting a problem can have disastrous consequences. Not letting everyone know your every emotion is positive; not letting anyone know any of your emotions is negative.
The concept that generally represents masculinity taken to a negative extreme is traditional masculinity. In many ways, traditional masculinity is our socially constructed ideas of what it means to be a man. Phrases such as “Don’t cry, man up”, “you’re all you need”, “feelings are unimportant”, and the like hold us in a prison of our own making. This prison does not allow us to face the truth that we might have a problem too big and complex for us to solve alone. We simply cannot muscle through a mental illness.
So we are at a disadvantage, Esteemed Gentlemen, but that does not excuse us. That does not allow us to simply ignore the many concerns, generally unspoken, around us. It does not allow us to propagate the cycle of caustic hyper-masculinity. If anything this should prompt us to press into those around us more and with greater clarity, asking the questions that, while scary, might save someone’s life.
Nothing can begin to change until we begin to talk, open and candid, about mental illnesses in our own lives. I mean this in a practical way not in some aloof “those” people have issues way. Talk to those closest to you about your mental state, dare I say about your emotions. Instead of simply telling your wife or girlfriend “it was a hard day”, open the door a bit more. Tell her how you felt when your boss reacted poorly to your proposal, tell her how that shaped the rest of your day and how you wish it hadn’t. Conversely, ask her about her emotions and actually listen to her, ask follow-up questions.
But please dear Gentlemen, begin to have these conversations with fellow male friends. Press into their lives to understand their wants, hurts, and challenges. We cannot allow the half-baked ideas of the socially constructed man to blind us to the realities of our lives: men do cry, they don’t always have the answer, they frequently need help. We have to be committed to the notion that “manning up” often means talking about things that are uncomfortable or awkward.
Please hear this: if you have a mental illness of any variety you aren’t alone, you aren’t abandoned, you are still loved, and you still have value. I guess what I’m trying to say is, it’s okay.