For so many men who are suffering with a mental illness, reaching out for help is made twice as hard: the stigma around mental health joins forces with the 'rules' of masculinity often deterring men from discussing their emotions and seeking help when they need it most. Mental illness and masculinity are two wholly misunderstood concepts in their own regard but when such ignorance is combined the effects can be devastating.
Unfortunately I'm all too familiar with these effects. About three months ago I finally told my family that I wasn't okay. After twenty-one years of being "alright" it came as quite a shock to them, they had no idea I was suffering from anxiety or depression nor did they understand what it was or what had caused it, after all they had done everything to give me the best life they could. They thought as I once did that my introverted behaviour, my long periods of isolation was just part of my personality and the part I would grow out of. In short they took society's view that I was just being a typical teenage boy.
It wasn't that hard to believe either, after all I was quite functional, I went to school, did my homework, and went out. I looked fine, normal even - no cast, crutch or crookedness singled me out, I went under everybody's radar and even my own. I had just accepted my internal trauma as part of my personality, part of being a man that had to be overcome. I had never even considered the possibility that I could have depression or an anxiety disorder, I just didn't fit the media profile of someone who suffered poor mental health. I didn't sit in a dark room in the foetal position for hours on end, nor did I hurt others, or myself for that matter. I was looking for physical evidence of a disability and didn't find a single tangible defect.
I was unknowingly exacerbating the stigma that was causing me so much pain. On top of this I was telling myself that my pounding heart, my mindboggling thoughts, my exhaustion and my social ineptitude made me much less than a man - I was pathetic, never good enough, I just couldn't handle the shame of not living up to some mythical god. But who could I tell? Everyone would think I was weak or making excuses. I had bought into society's view of masculinity, of gender roles as well as its ignorance around what mental illness actually entails. In my eyes I wasn't mentally ill or a man - I had no excuse to be this 'pathetic'. It not only prevented me from seeking help but also made me feel thoroughly ashamed of who I was, a self-loathing that I still struggle with.
I suffered under the weight of this expectation for years before some close friends who have had similar experiences finally convinced me that seeking help didn't make me weak, that I was being irrational. I was expressing mental anguish in a way that society didn't recognise as suffering, but my friends did, they saw my suffering independent of my gender rather than the manifestation of my genetic makeup. And it made all the difference.
My friend also revealed to me that other men were suffering under the same stigma, and put me in touch with others who have bravely shared their own experiences with me.
"My Dad came home... He told me how I needed to deal with my issues. I always hated that word - need. You need water, you need air, you need food, without them you die. Saying I NEED to deal with my issues creates certain connotations of what could happen if I don't. It's a very ominous word. He continues though, saying me and me alone can get over these issues, he can't help me do it."
You can read it in full here.
The sense that men should not speak about their feelings is not always this overt, it is often self-inflicted as Matt describes:
"University fell into a ditch by the wayside. I tried my best to keep my drinking from my housemates, loving, and nosey, as they are. But I couldn't keep up the charade for long. Self-loathing comes will the feeling of having let someone down, but guilt was new to me. On the first occasion (of many) that my best friend came home to find me blacked out on the floor of my bedroom, with letters torn to pieces around me, and my prize orchid smashed against the wall, I didn't care. She didn't care she was just interfering. This was for me to deal with she could stuff it. Matt, you fool!"
You can read Matt's story here.
The excerpts above demonstrate the dangers of becoming trapped by archaic male stereotypes and the diversity with witch men deal with poor mental health. The fact is males express distress in number of ways that our culture often deems typical masculine behaviour; being withdrawn, lacking trust, lacking empathy, using violence and substance abuse are often used as coping mechanisms when society delegitimizes their emotions. Negative stereotyping around mental health is a huge problem full stop, but for men the stereotypes can be particularly harmful.