Around the world, men of many different cultures and ages are affected by the stigma associated with mental health issues and what it means to be masculine.
Common phrases like, “man up” and “boys don’t cry” may leave adolescent and teenage boys hesitant to ask for help in times of need. For some people, any traits or behaviors that are seen as “feminine” are targeted and met with homophobia, hate speech or bullying – making it even harder for boys and young men to feel like they can open up. This often happens during a person’s formative years and may even continue long into adulthood; that type of denigrating language and behavior becomes normalized.
According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), men die by suicide around 3.67 times more than women. The picture only gets bleaker when you add in communities that are marginalized and don’t fit within the rigid gender binary. In 2008, a meta-analysis of 25 international studies in the journal BMC Psychiatry concluded the lifetime count of suicide attempts for gay or bisexual men to be almost four times higher than heterosexual males.
The ripple effect of these events flows out across so many issues that are only becoming louder and harder to ignore — making it an arduous task to distill the noise back down to the real issue.
Shining a light in the darkness
We need to work toward shifting our perspective to end the stigma around mental health — especially when it comes to men. The question is, how?
I think a good place to start would be to celebrate authentic emotional expression and vulnerability from men.
We need to talk about depression.
We need to work through our feelings, support one another, and reach out to loved ones when we’re in need.
We need to celebrate authentic emotional expression and vulnerability from men.
We need to accept those who don’t fit the rigid definitions of masculinity and build our capacity for compassion and empathy to reduce the likelihood that our friends and brothers harm themselves or others.
We need more stories.
To help put an end to the fear of opening up, I’ve collected a few stories from members of The One Project. Below are their thoughts on masculinity, how it has affected their mental health, and how they’ve learned to cope with negative feelings and insecurities.
“Fear of Flying”
“I’ve been told to let go, though I’ve never had a grip. Maybe you loved me when you could hold me on your hip. To you I’m too sensitive, but I’ve got sense to live, and there’s more to life than making cents to live.”
This is an excerpt from a poem I wrote my father four years ago addressing child abuse. I’ve never considered myself to be a “man” in the traditional sense. I was never aggressive like my father or brothers, though this was the normal behavior that I was exposed to. At an early age I can recall my father forcing me to do squats until I could no longer stand. I also remember him dismissing my diagnosis of social anxiety; he chalked it up to me needing a job.
As a pre-teen I would create pillows out of old t-shirts until my older brother said, “that’s gay.” Then he’d glorify a fight I had when I was 8 years old. I guess you have to be tough growing up in the inner city. In retrospect, this idea of being a “man” caused a great deal of conflict within me. I was simply being my creative self, but that self was being attacked and suppressed by the ideas of others. This created a pattern of uncertainty, self-doubt, and fear of judgement.
We define masculinity as the possession of qualities traditionally associated with men. A tradition is merely a belief passed on from generation to generation, in the same way a religion is passed on. Will the monk go to hell because he didn’t believe that Christ is the only way? Or maybe the Christian misses out on heaven because they never realized it was attainable here on earth? These are all thoughts and ideas agreed upon by people with opposing views. But we are not separate from this society. Our thoughts and ideas are equally valid. I am expecting one of the greatest gifts next month, a son. I will teach him the knowledge that I’ve acquired. He will know that it is okay to not be okay. I will guide him, but I won’t be a dictator. I will allow him to fully express who he is, and create his definition of a man.
He will not have a fear of flying to his highest potential.
- Trenton Eleque James
“You are here”
I had my gallbladder removed June of 2015. They found swollen lymph nodes and I found out I had penile cancer in August. I had the majority of my penis removed September 1st, found out I was officially cancer free Sept 11th, became ill September 15th, and had emergency liver transplant two days later.
So, I finally discharged from the hospital November of 2015, grateful to be alive, aware of the physical issues I had ahead of me but had no clue as to the mental struggles I would be dealing with for the rest of my life.
2016 wasn’t a bad year I proposed to my girlfriend of 7 years, spent so much time with my children, started getting into photography, and started seeing a psychologist (only because my doctors suggested, I didn’t think I needed it). She diagnosed me with acceptance issues and PTSD.
2017 was awful. From all that I been and continue to go through, I started getting attention from people which lead to me call off my engagement, thinking the grass was greener on the other side. I started distancing myself from everyone from my past and started hanging out with a new crowd. I pushed everyone away because I didn’t think I could be the new me and still be around them.
The only thing that remained constant over 2016 and 2017 is photography. When I was out using my camera, my head was clear and my thoughts were happier. Photography allowed me the time I needed to get real with myself.
This is when I made the decision to face my mental health head-on and allow myself to be open and vulnerable about it. I was afraid to let the world in, but I knew if I didn’t do something I was going to hurt myself or someone else.
So, I started posting on Instagram and Facebook about my dark days, my struggles to get out of bed, anxiety attacks that would make me feel physically ill, dealing with the loss of my penis at 30 years old, the guilt, pain, pressure, and “why me” feelings that I felt after getting an emergency liver transplant.
Allowing myself to feel and embrace my emotions – good and bad – and being able to express them to others even if that meant crying in front of people who I knew would judge me.
I am no means cured of my mental struggles, and that’s ok because I have a coping plan and people that I know are there to listen and help me when I am on the verge of losing it.
I’ve learned to accept bad moments but I no longer let them turn into bad days or weeks. I am back with my fiancéé with a relationship that is stronger than ever. Mental illness is a lot like a photo that is out of focus: the picture isn’t clear but little adjustments can add more clarity.
Masculinity, the void, and Sammi makes three
Content Warning: self-harm
Twenty-eight years ago, some doctor looked between my legs and declared me male. It all went downhill from there.
Objectively, I had a pretty good life: food, shelter, and parents who loved me. Since childhood, in my subconscious I was always knew I was a woman – the problem was that everyone seemed to think I was a boy, and that, unfortunately, informed my conscious mind. Any time a remotely feminine thought rose to the surface, I’d tell myself to “man up” and repress that thought. I was never a boy, but I wore the facade of one, as I was giving in to society’s expectations of me.
This rapidly spiraled out of control, and by age seventeen I wasn’t just repressing feminine thoughts, I was repressing all emotions. I was little more than a living husk, void of all emotion. I turned to self-harm, and other self-destructive behaviors as a means of coping with the void, in the hope of feeling something. Anything. I couldn’t turn to anyone for help because it wasn’t “manly” to seek the help of a therapist, and I feared ostracism from my peers should I show any gender nonconformity outside the role I was assigned at birth.
I fell into myself, which only made the problem of the void worse.
It wasn’t until I began exploring my gender identity, allowing myself to embrace my femininity that I was able to get help from a counselor at the urging of a dear friend. That counseling literally saved my life and, had I not broken the bonds of toxic masculinity, I would not be here today to write this piece.
Masculinity itself is not toxic, but it becomes toxic when it causes harm, or emotional/mental distress to oneself, or others.
-Samantha E. Nystrom
Mascul- In Me
I don’t fit in boxes and never have. I’ve tried. I kept quiet. My deepest expression was how well I suppressed.
The little me was always asking why - there’s got to be a reason why we do things this way and it should make sense, right? I hoped so. Unfortunately, we have so far to go, far deeper than I’ve had to go in my soul.
Depressed. Suicidal. The loneliest person I know.
Searching for where I was broken, why I didn’t check the boxes just right or live up to what it means to be a man.
But I see those glorified guys falling off of their thrones. How far behind we are because of the leadership we’re constantly bestowed. I see hurt people hurting people and another half to our family that deserve more respect.
Do you see me right now? Do you see yourself? Laugh or cry - I hope you do what’s right and let it out.
Pause. Breathe. Stand down. We need to heal before we keep killing ourselves.
Oh, you have an opinion?
I’m only interested in my own definition and how to best live out my mission.
We need love.
As part of my journey to healing, I’ve had to dig up the shame I’ve felt over years so that I can start to see those situations differently. I had to learn to admit when I’m wrong and commit to moving forward. You can’t dwell on the past. You’ll only see change by learning from your mistakes and making informed choices in the future.
I don’t have the answers. I wish I did. They are within each one of us. They’re in our stories. I urge you to share yours and encourage those around you to do the same. It’s time we end the epidemic and redefine masculinity.
Will you join me?
For more information on how to manage depression, reach out to your doctor or healthcare team. If you are in a crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.
- King, M., et al. (2011). A systematic review of mental disorder, suicide, and deliberate self-harm in lesbian, gay and bisexual people. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-244X-8-70
- Suicide Mortality in the United States, 1999-2017. (2018). https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/databriefs/db330.htm
DEPR-US-NP-00056 APRIL 2019