One of the more common tropes in television and movies is that of the man lost on a country road, stubbornly refusing to look at a map or ask any passersby for directions back to the interstate.
We all laugh at the character’s expense, many of the women knowingly nodding their heads, some of the men getting just a little defensive. These fictional accounts of men’s unwillingness to ask for help are obviously exaggerated; but empirical data—as well as long-standing cultural constructs—support the idea that men actually are less inclined to seek help in many areas of life, especially when it comes to their mental health. One report, published in American Psychologist, found that two-thirds of out-patient mental health visits were made by women despite men experiencing similar issues at nearly identical rates.
For some men, there can be dangerous consequences to ignoring issues with mental health.
Consider these statistics:
• Men die by suicide 3.5 percent more often than women.
• Suicide accounts for 2.2 percent of deaths among males each year, making it the 7th leading cause of death for males.
• Of the 3.5 million people in the United States diagnosed with schizophrenia, 90 percent of those who are diagnosed by age 30 are men.
• Substance abuse—which is sometimes labeled “slow-motion suicide”—occurs in men at a rate of 3 to 1 in comparison to women.
So, instead of laughing at the obstinate lost man on the big screen, perhaps we should be asking why men are less inclined to seek out help when they need it and what we can do to encourage them to change their minds about asking for help when it comes to their mental health.
The why of it all is hard to know for certain, but most social scientists agree that it is not biologically determined that men will seek less help than women. “If that’s true,” says psychologist Glenn Good, dean of education at the University of Florida and an expert on gender issues in education, “then it must mean that it’s socialization and upbringing: Men learn to seek less help.” How they have learned this is fairly easy to understand.
• For thousands of years, it was culturally assumed that a man should be the strong, assertive voice of an organization or group, whether that organization was a family, a religion, a government, or a corporation.
Showing emotions was—and often still is—considered to be a sign of weakness and failure as a leader. As such, many men hid or suppressed their emotions.
• In television, literature, and films, boys are often shown being encouraged to “tough it out” or “play through the injury” in times of physical stress. This has been echoed in their homes and at school for years.
The words “man up” in the face of embarrassment, scraped knees, or teasing have been used far more often than “it’s okay to cry,” or “tell me what happened,” or “let it out.”
• Oftentimes, men aren’t even aware of emotions they might be experiencing. A report published by the American Psychological Association explains that “boys learn from their parents and from other children that they are not supposed to express vulnerability or caring.
They learn to suppress their emotional responses—like crying or even sad facial expressions—so much that, by the time they are adults, they are genuinely unaware of their emotions and how to describe them in words.”
• Men also express symptoms of depression and anxiety in different ways than women, which leads many of them to believe they are dealing with something other than a mental health issue.
For example, depressed men are more likely to experience symptoms such as irritability, anger, fatigue, and a loss of interest in work or hobbies than they are to feel what is usually defined as sadness or worthlessness.
Changing these patterns can be slow work, but it is possible.
On one of the episodes of the Emotions Mentor podcast, I talked with my friend James Bybee about changing men’s perceptions of mental health and wellness. James has many invaluable ideas about this topic. His biggest suggestion is two-fold: learn to recognize the problem in yourself and then learn to connect with others.
The connection doesn’t have to be with a therapist in the traditional sense but can be with any person or group of people who share common interests and goals. In today’s age, James says, you can do almost everything—shopping, working remotely, seeking entertainment—in isolation via the Internet. This isolation fosters feelings of discontent and worsens mental health. But real, human connections are invaluable to a sense of wellbeing.
This is part of why therapists in many areas have begun linking engaging int hobbies and physical activity to mental health therapy. A group class on taking apart and repairing cars, for example, provides the connections men crave without the “therapy talk” they resist. Warrior Expeditions, a nonprofit group in Roanoke, Virginia, provides wilderness experiences—including wilderness therapy—to veterans struggling with PTSD.
The outcome of these expeditions has been promising; participants have reported that the physical demands of the program—hiking the Appalachian Trail—has decreased their anxiety and improved their sleep, while the socialization with other vets in the program has provided solid human connections.
More talk about mental health—particularly from men—can also be extremely beneficial.
A growing number of celebrities—including Mark Zuckerberg and Shawn Mendes—have begun speaking out about their own mental health diagnoses in an effort to wipe out the stigma surrounding depression, anxiety, and other illnesses among men.
Such talk can help place “vulnerability, as a core principle of emotional strength, into the framework of masculinity,” says Dr. David Plans, whose research efforts in the field have lead him to create digital products and programs to help people “take control of their mental wellbeing.”
Vulnerability is critical to relationships and emotional strength, as it allows us to work through the stumbling blocks to good mental health and come out stronger after examining our emotions and the reasons behind the way we act and feel. It also increases the likelihood that a man will ask for help when it comes to improving mental health.
And while, it may not be crucial to a man’s health to ask for directions when lost on a road trip, asking for help in the midst of a mental health crisis can make all the difference in the world. And, hopefully, with each man who learns to be vulnerable and seek out help, the number (1 every 20 minutes) of suicides among men will decline.