Having been told to “man up” and “be strong” for generations, it’s really no surprise that the state of men’s mental health is worsening. Statistics show us that 10 percent of men report experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety, but fewer than half receive treatment or a diagnosis. A study by The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention reveals that men are almost four times as likely to die by suicide than women.
So why do we still tell our boys and men to “be the rock” of the family and discourage them when they show signs of sensitivity? Social norms encourage men to shake hands instead of hugging. Being tough and lacking displays of emotion are still preferred behaviors according to gender stereotypes. These “lessons” are not helping.
Even when circumstances allow us to normalize discussions about men’s mental health, men still struggle to express, describe, and distinguish their emotions. It’s difficult for men to seek professional help, as they’ve been told for generations that succumbing to emotions makes them weak. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), men are more likely to see a doctor about physical symptoms than they are to see a professional for emotional support.
So, what happens next?
Two things need to happen:
- We need to recognize symptoms of male depression and anxiety as different from standard indicators we’ve embraced for years.
- Society has to normalize discussions about men’s mental health.
What are the signs of male depression and anxiety?
While many signs of male depression are the same for both men and women (feelings of despair, overwhelming sadness, the inability to find life worth living, etc.), men may experience it differently. Whether it’s due to the way society has impacted them or just a difference chalked up to being a man vs. a woman, it really doesn’t matter in the end. Recognizing these symptoms is the first step to moving toward progress and recovery.
Common symptoms include:
- Escapist behavior (being overly involved at work, obsessed about sports, or engaged in another endeavor that distracts them from their concerns)
- Physical symptoms (racing heart, headaches, or digestive issues)
- Drug or alcohol misuse
- Controlling, violent, or explosive behavior
- Inappropriate anger and irritability
- Risky behavior (such as driving dangerously fast)
- Noticeable changes in mood, energy, or appetite
- Feeling on edge or restless
How do we normalize conversations about men’s mental health?
Right now, it’s a challenging situation for men to be in. Many men know that they’re not “OK.” But, even knowing that their mental health needs attention isn’t often enough to propel them to action. Even if they do seek help, they experience several obstacles, including:
- Lack of close supports
- Peer judgment
- Cultural expectations
- Common stigmas
- Affordability and accessibility to services
Because they may know they want help – but don’t know how to get help (or they’re afraid to seek services), they may experience even more stress and shame. This exacerbates the problem and creates a spiral of mental and physical health symptoms that seems neverending.
However, opportunities exist to create safe spaces for these conversations. Here are a few things YOU can do to help:
- Quit with the stereotypes: Enforcing norms for men in a way that glorifies stoicism, strength, virility, and dominance leads men to believe that it’s weak to express, display, or discuss emotions. It perpetuates a reluctance for men to address mental health concerns. Stop teaching boys that being emotional, tenderhearted, or “sweet” is bad. Changing how boys treat their emotions could be the key to a generation of men who have a better grasp on their mental health.
- Listen compassionately: When someone opens up about their mental health concerns or talks about how they feel, encourage them to share. Listen to what they’re saying. Give them your full attention. Don’t cut them off or end the conversation because it’s awkward or uncomfortable.
- Be supportive, never judgmental: Do NOT pass judgment. Take in what the person is telling you and do your best to understand the emotions they are discussing. It’s not an issue of whether the person is right or wrong in what they’re feeling – it’s the issue that they are experiencing big emotions they need to express.
- Check in: Sometimes, starting the conversation opens the door to a supportive environment where someone can share their feelings or concerns about their mental health. Check in with your friends. Ask questions. Let them know you’ve noticed they don’t seem quite like themselves.
- Help find resources: Often, people have no experience seeking mental health services and are hesitant to reach out. Help someone find resources and do what you can to connect them with professionals who can help.