by Elyssa Lee, MSW, LCSWA
Although it has decreased in recent years, there is still a negative stigma attached to mental health that is all too prevalent in society. An outdated viewpoint based on misunderstanding, mental health concerns are often still viewed as personal weakness or character flaws of those who are experiencing them. There is a common misconception that people should just “get over it” as if mental health disorders are a personal choice resulting from a lack of personal willpower. Despite the understanding that mental health conditions are linked to chemical changes in the brain and therefore are caused by physical changes in the body (much like diabetes and other health conditions), many people still can’t shake the misconception that ‘mental illness is not a real disease and is just a mental shortcoming.’ This stigma unfortunately results in millions of people failing to ask for help and seek the mental health treatment needed to improve their well-being due to fear of being judged.
This makes unaddressed mental health conditions one of the most common “silent killers.”
Unfortunately, the negative stigma associated with seeking mental health treatment is even more prevalent when it comes to men. You are probably familiar with the phrase “real men don’t cry.” Although completely untrue and rooted in toxic masculinity, this phrase has been adopted as popular belief in society. From a young age, men are taught to be strong, quiet,
resilient, and tough. Boys are taught that to be “manly” means they should be aggressive, powerful, and never show weakness. These traits are not necessarily negative. However, when these traits become overly pronounced and expected, the definition of masculinity becomes toxic.
It can be harmful to individuals and to society in general. While the stigma surrounding mental illness and depression affects people of all genders, research shows that men tend to have an even harder time admitting they need help. Because of the many unrealistic societal expectations surrounding masculinity, men often avoid asking for help because they do not want to risk appearing weak. The stigma surrounding mental illness discourages people from seeking help because they do not want to admit having a problem which is so frowned upon by society. Therefore, traits of toxic masculinity encourage many men to suffer in silence rather than risk appearing weak by asking for help. The stark consequences of this are overwhelming.
Toxic standards of masculinity can result in:
● worsening of depression and anxiety
● abuse of substances
● greater health risk (e.g., cardiovascular and metabolic disease)
● issues with dating and interpersonal intimacy
● issues with interpersonal violence
● increase in overall psychological distress
● discouragement in seeking help
In addition, Mental Health America reports that 6 million men are affected by depression in the United States every single year and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention reports that men died by suicide at a rate of 3.54 percent higher than women in 2017. Men are two to three times more likely to abuse drugs than women and the annual number reported of men dying due to alcohol related causes is 62,000 compared to 26,000 women. Depression and suicide are ranked as a leading cause of death among men, and yet they’re still far less likely to seek mental health treatment than women. These statistics prove that the negative stigma associated with men seeking mental health treatment is literally killing them. The urgency of this issue cannot be ignored.
But what can be done?
One action step we can take is to come together as a society and raise awareness of this issue to reduce the negative stigma. This year, June 13th to 19th is National Men’s Health Week which provides the perfect opportunity for us to come together in advocacy for men’s mental health.
How can we do this?
Start talking and spread the word! Normalizing the expression of emotions for ALL genders and gender identities, seeking mental health treatment, and talking about our own mental health are simple & effective ways to reduce the stigma. Encourage the men in your life to share their emotions by sharing your own & emphasizing that acknowledging difficult emotions and seeking treatment is an act of courage, not weakness.
As Zach Levin from the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation states “No one is immune to stress. Talking with others about how it is affecting you can foster empathy, camaraderie, and support — all of which fight against the feelings of isolation on which addiction and mental health issues can thrive.”
Secondly, we can educate. Begin to educate family and friends on the truth about mental health. Normalize the fact that mental health is just as vital to our well-being as physical health. It is important to help people to realize that these are true medical problems, that there are effective treatments available, and that there is help & hope if one is willing to try.
Lastly, educate yourself and your loved ones on the warning signs that someone may be struggling with a mental health disorder and need to seek help.
Some common signs include:
● Changes in mood
● Changes in work performance
● Sadness, despair, hopelessness, or loss of enjoyment in things that once brought pleasure
● Noticeable weight changes
● Increased anger or irritability
● Loss of appetite
● Physical symptoms such as frequent headaches, dizziness, or stomach issues
If you recognize any of these signs in a loved one, encourage them to seek help and remind them that asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. Encourage them with the fact that there are plenty of effective treatment resources available and that healing is possible. If you have suffered from mental health issues of your own, sharing stories about your experiences and journey can help to normalize the issue, reduce the stigma, and encourage others to speak out about what they are experiencing.