Mental health issues don't discriminate. They affect people from all parts of society regardless of ethnicity, religious beliefs or gender. The following story is the second of a two-part series written in collaboration with Peace Over Panic that examines the impact of societal values and pressures on the physical, emotional and mental health of men and women.
Men are strong. Men are guardians. Men are the gender that protects, that wins, that dominates. Men ‘man up’, they grit their teeth and they keep pushing, no matter what. Men have muscles, they are intelligent, they are handsome, they are funny, and they are confident. Men carry their burdens without complaining, they don’t cry and they sure as hell don’t ever feel fear.
From my own childhood through to my now 31st year on this planet, the narrative for how men should be has been like this. Fed by TV shows, movies, sport and print media, among other things, this narrative painted an image that, as I grew up, I always tried to abide by. It was something I always revered as the ultimate end goal for me to achieve.
A harsh transition
It wasn’t until the harsh transition from the innocent primary school years to the turbulent teenage years of secondary school that this narrative truly started to affect me. With the bizarre and confusing whirlwind of hormones, physical changes and new beginnings, it demanded that I began to take notice. It demanded that I had to start taking it seriously and strive to fit in with what was expected of me.
Despite my best efforts though, it was a mold of manhood that I simply didn’t fit. I never felt like I was strong or particularly talented in ‘manly’ things like football or rugby. I never felt like I was funny or good looking (despite my mum’s continuous insistence on this being the truth). As I grew almost 100% vertically and very little horizontally, my skin broke out into full-blown acne and my hair grew into a curled mess.
The stark contrast between what I thought I should be and what I actually was developed an unhealthy comparative mindset that affected me for far too long. I began to compare myself to my male friends, some of whom filled out quicker than me, some of whom excelled at sports, and some of whom began engaging with members of the opposite sex.
The result was, as I look back now, the first signs of depression and anxiety taking root in my life. I developed a negative self-talk that would drive me into lengthening periods of feeling down. The voice in my own head was telling me I didn’t and never could fit the narrative I desperately wanted to fulfil, leading me to lose interest in my life. I began to shy away from social events, and when I did attend them, I preferred to stick to intimate conversations with one or two friends as a desperate attempt to keep away from any kind of potential social spotlight. The things that would usually bring me joy, like seeing friends, reading, or playing video games, became increasingly ineffective at countering boredom and my own self-degradation. And perhaps most destructive of all, I began to become resentful of those with the confidence to be themselves.
Still going strong
In the final year of my teens, I ventured off to university and, although a terrifying prospect from an anxiety point of view, I felt like I was being given a fresh start. I thought that this was the time that everyone would have some sort of idea of who they wanted to be and were at least partly on course to achieving their goals. Despite this pre-conception though, I discovered that the same narrative was still going strong, but with some added extras.
Excessive drinking became a ‘thing’ that all men were expected to do and if you couldn’t drink absurd amounts of alcohol, in some instances (like a society induction night), you were actively ridiculed. Sleeping around (with some people I know actively pursuing as high a number of sexual partners as possible) was some form of measurement of masculinity. And getting ‘buff’/’hench’/’jacked’/whatever word you’re familiar with that means muscular became an expectation for boys moving into adulthood.
This new extended definition of what it was to be a man continued to bubble under the surface although, thankfully, never really came to a head when I was at uni. Perhaps it was the fairly laid-back, bubble-like environment of living on campus that made everything a bit easier to deal with.
At least, for me it was. Several people I became friends with gave me my first taste of male mental health issues. One of my closer uni friends had a terrible relationship with his father because of their (the father’s) very ‘traditional’ ideas about masculinity. It wasn’t until a few years after graduating that I discovered that my friend was on antidepressants and had been even before I’d met him. A friend from home, one of my very closest mates from secondary school, had found the experience particularly damaging to their mental health. I have since discovered this was driven by all of the same male pressures I had been experiencing. Another friend embraced the binge drinking culture and for a long time continued to indulge in it, to the point that I feared he may need help.
The decade that followed in my life was pretty turbulent, but also a time of self-discovery. At the age of 22, I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety after leaving my first full-time job. For the next 7 or so years I bounced between jobs trying to discover build a career that would make me happy. At 30, I experienced the breakdown of an 8-and-a-half-year relationship which just so happened to coincide with me leaving yet another job I hated and the death of a pet.
But at the same time, I developed a sense of myself and who I was. Social pressures from my youth faded while I became more informed about mental health and methods to manage my wellbeing. It’s only now, at 31, that I can say that I feel mostly in control of this aspect of my life.
With all of this said though, I still to this day witness elements of the unhealthy narrative that plagued my younger life. There are still people I know and people in mainstream media that prescribe to the ‘fearless man’ image; the man that never should reveal his true feelings. There are still people I see on social media trying to peddle the ‘true meaning’ of being a man as some chiselled, statuesque, Greek god-looking being. There are still popular figures with vast influence in our society that continue to preach outdated views on male mental health.
In recent years, I feel our society has progressed a lot in terms of recognising the importance of mental health and wellbeing, including with regards to men’s mental health. But for me, we still have a way to go until men’s mental health is truly and seriously accepted. I believe that the way to change this is to open up and to not bottle up our feelings as part of some never-ending pursuit of a false masculine narrative.
Personally, I have found that talking openly about my mental health has not only been incredibly liberating, but also very effective at opening up other men to talk about their experiences. If you find yourself struggling, maybe you’re feeling unusually down or anxious or confused, I urge you to speak to someone. Once you make that terrifying step to do so (believe me, I know how it feels), it acknowledges the existence of an issue. And, on a personal level, once you acknowledge it, you can address it. But on a societal level, you’re pushing the topic further into the mainstream, making it easier for all men to speak out.
Peace Over Panic is a website founded by Nav Sohanpaul that provides various mental health support materials, including guidance on therapies, blogs based on real-life experiences and lots of tips on how to make small changes in your everyday life to feel more in control of your mental wellbeing. Visit the website here.