Fighting the Stigma Against Men’s Mental Health

Neal Sundberg

November 16, 2020

Coaching community manager at Ginger

Fighting the Stigma Against Men’s Mental Health

I remember my first breakup. I was angry. I remember my parent’s divorce. I was livid. This familiar feeling emerged with each loss I suffered. I yelled. I broke things. I drank. I pushed away any other emotion other than anger. And underneath that anger was pain. A pain that I hid from the world. A pain that was wrapped in anxiety and depression — feelings I knew well and feelings I made sure no one else would see. I was suffering in silence because that was how I thought men dealt with their emotions.

Looking back, I wish I had cried instead of banging on the steering wheel. I wish I cried instead of yelling at my loved ones. I wish I was courageous enough to show my emotions and tell people exactly what I was going through, but I was scared. What would happen if people saw me cry? How would people view me?

This experience is common among men. Ideals and stereotypes of what masculinity looks like is fed to us in a myriad of ways. From our friends and family to pop culture, we see men’s anger being normalized and their sadness stigmatized. Men often feel that they can express their anger, yet rarely feel comfortable to cry. Anger is something that we can act on, whereas sadness is something we have to go through. Experiencing sadness, and sitting in it is uncomfortable, but it’s both a normal and healthy emotion that we must learn to accept and embrace.

Underneath the veil of masculinity, there’s a similar stigma against anxiety. Anxiety sometimes is grouped with fear, and fear can be associated with weakness. It can seem like the most powerful men don’t ever get nervous. We feel that confidence is something that comes with suppressing our anxiety, fear, and insecurities. When we step back, however, we realize that this “ideal man,” who suppresses these feelings, more closely resembles a robot than a human being.

But, guess what? Men are human! And as humans, we experience a full range of emotions. When we learn to de-stigmatize these emotions, we can begin to recognize their importance. Emotions can often be a guiding light to both learn about ourselves and our situations. No one wants to feel sad, and so it makes sense that people try to avoid experiencing feelings of sadness. However, when we avoid experiencing our emotions, those emotions almost always become stronger. My own avoidance of my sadness brought on more sadness. If we aren’t honest with our own emotions — if we don’t even acknowledge them — we can’t move past them. It’s hard to experience emotions, but we can only get to the other side by going through them, not around them.

When we do avoid our emotions, in addition to anger, we tend to engage in high-risk and self-defeating behaviors, like violence, gambling, promiscuity, binge drinking, to name a few. All of these behaviors not only impact us, but also put a strain on our relationships. Where hiding emotions may tear us apart, showing emotions may bring us closer. Vulnerability is scary, yet it is the prerequisite to genuine human connection. Whether that is a romantic relationship or a close friendship, in order for us to connect in a meaningful way, we must be willing to be honest with ourselves and with others.

The stigma that exists not only plays a role in how we view our mental health, but also in how we decide to address it. Men often avoid seeking professional help because they believe it’s a sign of giving up. It’s often seen as throwing in the towel, when in reality, it’s agreeing to the fight. Seeking professional help takes strength. It’s honorable, and most importantly, it’s a step towards living the life that you want to live. I understand the desire to want to “deal with it on your own,” yet also know how difficult and isolating that can be. I know that had I not seen a professional, I would not be where I am today, writing a letter to hopefully inspire others to take a similar path.

So, from one man to another, if you are anything like I was, I encourage you to take a step back and look at your own emotional and mental health today. I encourage you to allow yourself to feel and express those emotions in a healthy way, to find space to be vulnerable and open. Along the way, I urge you to be compassionate towards yourself and be open to seeking help and support when you need it. Agree to the fight and know that I am in your corner rooting you on.