Last spring, I wrote a 3,200-word story about the particular ways in which men suffer from mental illness. The story’s main subject was a man I met in a mindfulness-based therapy group, which I was attending to help myself recover from my own mental health nosedive. Like many of the anxiety-ridden people I’ve known, the man was smart and well-spoken, and he was working to recover from decades of hidden anxiety — pain that he had never named until now.
He talked about how he used to accidentally break plates against each other as he unloaded them from the dishwasher to put them away. “It’s not like I was angry,” he told me. “I was just trying to do shit. Get it done. Get a checkmark. Move onto the next obstacle for the day.” Unbeknownst to him, his constant agitation was setting the tone for his entire household. His wife, his young son, even the family dog — they all walked on eggshells and cowered away from this man who couldn’t even see that he had a problem. He had no idea that the “internal explosions” he’d experienced since childhood weren’t happening inside everyone else, too.
As I reported the story, I spent hours listening to him talk about how the dissolution of his marriage sent him into a pit of suicidal thoughts. He told me about his daily phone calls to the suicide prevention hotline and his abject despondency. He did self-therapy in the form of intense interval workouts, the only thing he found that could quiet his screaming mind during the dark days — and even those only worked sometimes.
After I finished writing the story, I tucked it into a folder on my laptop, where it has stayed for the past year, unpublishable because this man, who had already clawed his way out of a desperate place, had yet more to fear. He was certain that publishing his ruminations about ending his life would obliterate his chances in the job market. He’d laid bare for me the intimate workings of his heart and pain but couldn’t give me permission to write his name.
The weight of stigma
There is a double-edged sword with mental illness. Those who are suffering must deal not only with the illness itself, but also the accompanying stigma. According to a 2015 Psychological Medicine report, stigma is the fourth-highest reason people do not seek help when suffering with their mental health.
Jodi Frey is a social worker and researcher at the University of Maryland focusing on adult mental health and well-being. One of her projects is Man Therapy, a mental health website geared toward, you guessed it, men. Frey told me that much of the stigma for men grows from concepts of masculinity and a lack of mental health literacy — they often don’t realize mental health issues are real things to watch out for. Men are expected to be able to fix themselves, which contributes to the stigma. They are supposed to be providers and fixers, and unfortunately, mainstream U.S. culture excludes the possibility that a provider and fixer can be both strong and vulnerable.
None of what Frey told me was a surprise. Everything I learned validated why I wanted to write the story in the first place. While I’ve wrestled with maintaining stasis in my own mind, it has also been difficult to battle the mental illness of the many men I’ve cared about over the years. These men have often not realized how much they’re struggling, let alone put in any real effort to examine the demons in their minds.
So often, we encourage this way of thinking. We shame little boys for expressing sadness or pain. We tell them not to cry, or if they do, it better be for a good reason — and then we’re confused when adult men can’t express how they’re feeling. As the subject of my story told me: “It’s all about strategic presentation. The moment you start babbling, you lose that ability to help shape how people see you.” When being considered a validated and verifiable member of your gender is dependent on showing no weakness, shaping how people see you is paramount.
We teach men from a young age to transmute emotional suffering into anger, according to a 2016 New York Times article, so it made sense when Frey told me men’s battles with depression or anxiety are often marked by anger and irritability. Also, women seek help with mental health issues more often than men, which means that we know less about how men react and deal with their mental health problems, and that affects how men are treated, Frey says.
More than men
I once dated a guy whose mental health problems were so severe (and so unchecked) that he would sometimes black out in the cereal aisle because the colorful boxes were too much for his anxious mind to handle. He had anger issues, Tourette’s, anxiety, OCD, and he refused to see a therapist. He didn’t think any of his problems were connected to his broader mental health; he thought he needed to take more vitamins and start running again.
He treated me like shit, and he all but destroyed me because I saw his pain. I thought that if he couldn’t fix himself, maybe I could do it for him.
This rebound effect on the female partners of men with mental health issues was discussed in a March 2019 Harper’s Bazaar article. The increasingly popular term “emotional labor” describes the often-exhausting work that people, frequently women, do in order to process their own and others’ feelings. Because we don’t teach boys how to identify, express and manage their feelings the way we teach girls, men are less likely to take initiative to do this type of work for themselves. This, combined with the already-present stigma towards seeking help for mental health issues and the idea of maintaining a “masculine” facade, leads to emotional illiteracy. As such, the responsibility for men’s emotional health often ends up falling on the shoulders of the women around them rather than on the men themselves, or on someone more qualified to provide actual help with mental health issues. Girlfriends, wives, sisters and friends end up functioning as de facto therapists for the men in our lives, providing support for free on top of the work they do to maintain their own mental well-being.
A supportive society
No issue in our society exists in isolation. It’s a problem for everyone, even those of us not bearing the heaviest weight of it. Perhaps it’s the friends and lovers toiling to help a man who can’t (or won’t) help himself; maybe it’s the employer whose employee is taking yet another sick day because he can’t get out of bed. Men are almost four times more likely to die by suicide than women, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Perhaps this means the weight of mental illness shifts to the child of a man who died by suicide because he felt he couldn’t withstand his depression a moment longer.
The point is, it doesn’t matter who you are. Man, woman, gender non-binary — the incompatibility between this toxic version of what it means to be a man and a person with well-rounded mental wellness is your problem, too.
When I was reporting my original story last year, I talked to Sally Spencer-Thomas, a clinical psychologist who spoke at the White House in 2016 about men’s mental health. She says she believes we’re at the beginning of a paradigm shift. Part of what Spencer-Thomas was referring to is a slate of “industry blueprints” — manuals for mental health, as well as other life factors, geared toward work industries that typically employ a lot of men. The manuals work to catch men falling through the cracks, Spencer-Thomas says.
The spark was a suicide prevention manual for the construction industry, which was widely well-received after its release in 2015 but became even more relevant after a 2016 report by the CDC stating that the construction industry had the second-highest suicide rate for men, surpassed only by the farming, fishing and forestry industry.
The industry blueprints now include the police force, firefighters and first responders, and the goal is to catch signs and symptoms that something’s wrong long before a person reaches the point of desperation and takes drastic steps to end his or her pain. For the man in my story, perhaps that would’ve meant seeing those broken plates as more than just a casualty of having clean dishes. Basically, if you think of mental illness like cancer, says Spencer-Thomas, it’s a lot easier to treat it before it reaches the latter stages.
Of course, there are many different types of men, and each group faces its own particular struggles. Black men, for example, have historically been emasculated by white society, such as the derogatory use of the word “boy,” which creates an even greater push toward hypermasculinity. Author bell hooks talks about this in her book We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity.
There are also the many men in the LGBTQ community who have reported being denied health care. Even when they are able to access it, lack of understanding and sensitivity from professionals can affect the quality of the care they receive, according to Mental Health America.
While there is a long way to go toward mental wellness, the wave of discussion of toxic elements of manliness, emotional labor and all the other consequences of men’s mental illness is promising. In the meantime, we can raise the boys of today to be the emotionally intelligent men of tomorrow.