It’s the middle of November. Movember, the month-long event that began as a way to raise money and awareness for prostate and testicular cancer, is in full swing. They’ve subsequently added a third goal, men’s mental health issues, especially suicide prevention. And, it’s had me thinking.
I’ve written many times about my own mental health, whether it’s ADHD or the occasional anxiety that accompanies it. I’ve probably also mentioned that I’m trying to teach my daughters that their feelings are valid, even when it means they’re mad at me. The feelings themselves are perfectly valid and normal. It’s how we react to them, what we do with those feelings that matters the most. But, we don’t always teach boys those same things. Most of the men we know have been taught that in order to be a man you have to push feelings down and pretend they aren’t sad, heartbroken, grief-stricken, upset, worried, anxious, or depressed. Feelings and emotions are not something “real men” spend time on. Does that thinking still seem appropriate in today’s society?
I’ve personally known at least three men who’ve struggled with depression and another two who have died by suicide. And, I know about those mostly because those men went to therapy and it helped them understand that they are not alone. I’m also 100% certain that many, many more men I’ve known have struggled, at least at some point, and just suffered through it. Men are almost four times more like to die by suicide than women.  Maybe if we taught men that uncomfortable emotions are normal and human this number would go down. If we normalize talking about, and asking men about, things like trauma or anxiety or depression, society as a whole benefits. Learning better, healthier ways to process our emotions can lead to less generational trauma. Just because it happened to you doesn’t mean you need to pass it along to your children.
From the time children are very small, we teach them to suppress their reactions to hurt, pain, and fear, particularly little boys. We teach them that tears are to sucked up and pain is to be walked off. Children are often dramatic and small hurts are blown out of proportion, but rather than talk to them about what’s causing the drama, we tell them to stop making a spectacle. I do it too, especially when I’ve tried asking what’s causing the crying/screaming/general nonsense, and I get no response. And, sometimes it’s warranted. But, it’s also important to teach them to try and name the emotion. For my girls, I believe that the fear about what just happened, like an unexpectedly hard fall, is worse than the pain itself and figuring that out helps them calm down. To find out if I was right, I went straight to the source and asked my children. My ten year old said that it helps her to figure out what she’s actually feeling (scared about the incident) instead of what she thinks she’s feeling (upset and angry). My five year old said it helps a little.
“Just be a man about it.” “Man up.” “Grow a pair and handle it.”
Every single day, from every single news outlet, we read about men deciding that anger or violence was the only outlet for their emotions. Whether it’s mass shootings, legislating women’s bodies, proclaiming that paid parental leave is a government handout or unnecessary, or even in the workplace where it’s acceptable for men to have outbursts of anger because they’re so committed to their work, we see the effects of society’s insistence that men not express any unhappy emotion other than anger. When, I mentioned to a Twitter friend that I was working on this piece and how anger is often the only way men are taught to express difficult or complex emotion, he responded with, “Being angry is easier, or at least more comfortable and familiar.” That is a mouthful, right there.
Men, too, suffer from mental health issues, and the last 18 months or so of this pandemic have been hard on us all. They’ve seen loved ones, friends, and coworkers die or become horribly ill. They’ve lost jobs, lost homes, and even lost hope. But, when was the last time any of us, me included, checked in on the men in our lives? It doesn’t have to be a big, sit-down conversation. It’s often as simple as saying, or even texting, something like, “Hey! It’s been a while. How’s everything going with you? This has been a wild year or so, hasn’t it?” And, none of it guarantees that they’re going to answer with anything other than a standard, “It’s all good. How about you?”, but what it does do is let that person know that you care enough to check in. Sometimes that’s all it takes to give another person a mental boost.
I think about the males I know, both adults and children, and I wonder if they know it’s ok to have bad days. As my older child runs headlong into puberty, I hope that we normalize having difficult emotions, how to process them, and healthy outlets for those feelings.
I don’t want this generation of children to think that the adults in their lives don’t care. We probably won’t always understand and we may not allow for pity parties (what my mother called spending long periods of time feeling sorry for yourself instead of doing something), but we always care.
I don’t want the men I know, and the men I don’t know, to suffer in silence. None of us should. We can do better, and one of the ways we can is by talking about it. Talking about mental health as a normal component of healthcare is essential. Emotions, including difficult, complex ones, are a part of the human experience. Learning how to care for your mental health is an important lesson. It’s okay to not be okay, and it’s vital that we say it aloud and shout it from the rooftops, instead of hiding from it.