America has a dirty little secret. Secrets have a way of making themselves known, and when we try too hard to keep them quiet, they usually find ways to explode in our faces. Our dirty little secret is already starting to simmer.
Our secret? The men are not okay.
Yes, I’m going to talk about it, and I’m prepared for all of you to hate it. Men don’t like talking about their mental health. Women don’t like talking about men’s mental health. And therein lies the problem. So, I’m sorry, friends. But we have to go there. As a mother of a little boy who I want to have the freedom to grow into a good and healthy man, I am going to insist on it.
We have, perhaps knowingly, perhaps unknowingly, put a horribly unfair expectation on our men. We cannot speak of the harms of patriarchy without also speaking of the impact of patriarchy on men. They have been the unwilling victims of patriarchy, too, despite being the instigators and upholders of patriarchy themselves. And if we truly want to make the world safer, more equitable, and less frustrating for women, we cannot ignore the problem of men’s mental health. The patriarchy has done unconscionable harms to the mental health of men in our society, and the mess of it is getting on all of us.
So, before anyone says, “you’re centering the men!” remember that until men heal and stop letting their brokenness harm the women around them, men’s mental health is everyone’s problem.
It’s a crisis we don’t talk about, mostly due to societal expectations and stereotypes about what it means to be a ‘man’. It’s time to address the stigmatization of men’s mental health, the harm it causes all of us when we choose to ignore it, and the importance of bringing this topic to light.
Society often expects men to be ‘strong’ – a word that has been wrongly equated with the suppression of emotions. Men are frequently discouraged from expressing their feelings or seeking help when they are in emotional distress. Just think of how many expressions we have for men who show ‘weakness’ through expressing their emotions. We say things like, stop being such a little girl, man up, grow a pair, and boys don’t cry. As the last phrase demonstrates, we begin this training of men when they are very little boys. This societal pressure, administered in micro doses over the course of a lifetime, can permanently discourage men from acknowledging their mental health struggles, let alone seeking help.
The stigmatization of men’s mental health isn’t only harmful to men themselves; it also impacts the people around them. When men suppress their feelings, they are more likely to struggle with relationships, work, and overall quality of life. Society’s portrayal of a ‘real man’ being invulnerable to emotional pain is not only unrealistic, but it’s also dangerous and harmful.
We have convinced men that the symbol of their masculinity is to be sexually accepted by women, so when we reject them (even kindly) they explode. They call us bitches, fat, ugly, whores, or any insult they can think of to nurse their wounded ego and avoid the discomfort of rejection. Because it’s not really about the rejection, is it. It’s about the perceived insult to their masculinity.
Real men don’t get rejected.
We tell men that they’re sissies if they feel sad about a relationship ending. So, rather than being honest about their feelings, rather than acknowledging the depth of their grief and seeking support to help them through it, they go to the bar. They get abysmally intoxicated, get in a fist fight, then drive home drunk, putting themselves and everyone on the road at risk.
Real men don’t care when relationships end.
We tell men that their worth is tied to how much money they make. So, when a man loses his job for reasons out of his control, he is too ashamed to tell his wife. He fears that she will see him as a failure, maybe even leave him. Instead of facing the fears born of this deep insecurity, he waits until the family is in bed and then washes down a bottle of pills with a handle of whiskey. Children are left fatherless. A wife is left to grieve and figure out how to survive.
Real men don’t fail their families.
So, as you see. It’s everyone’s problem.
And women are not only the victims of men’s poor mental health. Sometimes, sadly, we are the perpetuators of it. Women, too, can often unknowingly uphold these harmful stereotypes. We may label men who are open about their mental health as ‘less manly’ or weak. This only perpetuates the cycle of silence around men’s mental health. It’s easy to sit on the throne of judgement as we regard men’s mental health, but the truth is that a lot of us women have some of our own biases to deconstruct. We need to spend some time unlearning the things that patriarchy has taught us about men if we’re ever going to help them get their mental health under control.
I say this as much to myself as I do to you, dear reader. I am very guilty of leaning into these harmful stereotypes when men spew their brokenness at me. I address women’s issues online, which means I tend to get more than my fair share of seedy men in my orbit. Broken men hate women’s empowerment, and I spend a lot of time fielding disgusting drivel from such men. Sometimes, in my efforts to “match energies,” to “two can play that game” them, I point out their fragility. I use the phrases that men have traditionally weaponized against women: Why are you being so hysterical? Wow, look how emotional you’re getting! Are you going to be okay? Such fragility from the self-proclaimed stronger sex!
Sometimes, I feel like these tactics are the best tool we have in our tool belt. It’s easy to convince myself that perhaps speaking their language will break some sort of glass barrier and finally get through to them. But what I’ve seen, again and again, is that these tactics do not work. They only push broken men further into their harmful and frightening behaviors.
Broken men cannot respond rationally to those tactics. We can’t expect broken, unhealed men to see the irony. And with these tactics, we only perpetuate the harms the patriarchy has already put on them.
So, if I want to practice what I preach — if I am truly interested in helping men heal so that we can all be safer — even I have to address my thoughts and behavior around these issues.
Addressing the stigma surrounding men’s mental health is crucial. Everyone, regardless of gender, deserves to have their mental health concerns acknowledged, validated, and addressed. It’s time to redefine strength, not as the suppression of emotions, but as the courage to be vulnerable and seek help when needed.
We all have a part to play in this change. We must challenge these stereotypes and expectations. I don’t have all the answers, but here are some things we can be doing to challenge societal norms and help men come to terms with their mental health:
- Encourage open conversations with men about their mental health.
- Create safe spaces for men to express their feelings without judgement.
- Erase harmful expressions like “grow a pair” from our vocabulary
- Nurture men’s friendships with other men (men need emotional intimacy with other men, but they’ve been made to feel that it’s ‘not macho’
- Encourage the expression of men’s softer, more feminine nature (they all have it)
- Work to break down gender stereotypes that keep us all in unnecessary boxes
By doing this, we can help lift the curtain on the silent crisis of men’s mental health.
Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who speaks primarily on women’s issues around marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the newsletter to get FREE exclusive content and to never miss an upload!