BREAKING THE SILENCE
In the pilot episode of The Sopranos, mob boss Tony Soprano has been suffering from severe panic attacks, and has begrudgingly decided to see a psychiatrist. In his first session, however, he remains reluctant to talk about his feelings, bemoaning the loss of the American ideal of masculinity of past generations that he believes his generation has diluted with their over-sensitivity and emotionality. “What happened”, he asks, “to Gary Cooper? The strong, silent type. That was an American. He wasn’t in touch with his feelings. He just did what he had to do.”
Tony’s lament, unfortunately, reflects a perception that remains all too pervasive in our culture today. Society still teaches boys from a young age that real men don’t cry. Men are stoic, impassive, sturdy, and tough. Look at male action heroes in movies. Look at truck commercials, which seem to usually depict a rugged looking guy driving cross country set to macho, deep-voiced narration letting you know how impressive he looks. Look at the type of toys that are marketed towards boys: action figures, toy weapons, nerf guns; versus the toys marketed to girls: princess dolls, dress up clothes, adorable stuffed animals – toys that would be seen as “too girly” or emotional for the American standard of maleness. Boys are encouraged to play contact sports, but often get picked on for more feeling-based outlets like theater and choir. This sex divide is prominent from a very young age, and can have devastating consequences for men’s mental health.
THE PRICE OF MANLINESS
Mental Health America has designed a handy infographic to outline the problem:
The statistics are very clear. Every year, 6 million males are impacted by depression. 3 million suffer from a panic disorder, with many more suffering from other kinds of anxiety disorders. 10% of people with anorexia and bulimia are male, as are 35% of people with a binge-eating disorder. Meanwhile, suicide is the 7th leading cause of death for American men; they are 4 times more likely to die by suicide than women, and in 2010, over thirty thousand men took their own lives!
Although the reasons for this disparity are multifaceted, the main contributing factor is that men are consistently, significantly less likely to seek help for their mental health problems than are women with the same problems. Psychiatrist Dr. Ben Martin writes:
Historically, boys didn’t talk about their emotions or thoughts, so they failed to develop words to describe their feelings…. Men and boys often dismiss most problems as nuisances, and try to solve them alone or through a network of relatives and friends. But some issues may seem overwhelming or too personal. Failure to address the problems may lead to depression (https://psychcentral.com/lib/real-men- dont-get- help/).
The National Academic Press has issued some very helpful, comprehensive summaries of suicide research, which emphasize the importance of being able to seek out support for one’s issues (https://www.nap.edu). If you, as a male in America, don’t know how to recognize or discuss the severity of your feelings, you become isolated by your mental illness, decide that your case is hopeless, and take drastic action.
BUT IT ISN’T HOPELESS; AND YOU AREN’T ALONE
While some biological factors might play a role in why men have a propensity for certain mental health issues, the evidence points far more readily to these dominant social factors. This is both discouraging and encouraging: discouraging because it reveals the ugly, destructive power of socially-constructed gender norms, but encouraging because it also means there is a clear solution to this untalked-about epidemic: talk about it. We need to be teaching boys to discuss their feelings in healthy, self-aware, productive ways. We need to be reaching out to the boys and men in our society, broadcasting a clear message: Your feelings are normal, you aren’t alone, it’s O.K. to ask for help. It’s O.K., it’s O.K., it’s O.K.
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