(photography by Taylor Zavala)
"The conversation about self-care is so important so we should not be expected to put it on mute."
When you picture a strong man, what do you think of?
Like many of the images society imposes on us with, I expect you’ll be haunted by a standard that’s impossible to adhere to yet informs our everyday assessments and choices. Somebody brawny. Somebody handsome. Somebody who does not “complain” or “whine”. He’s not “weak”, he is not a “wuss”. He’s strong and silent. Silent. No tears or therapist couches to cry them on. Mental illness and any move to reveal that vulnerability is decidedly a sign of weakness.
Just look at this APA survey in which nearly 20,000 participants were asked what it means to be a man. Right beside violence and homophobia are “self-reliance”, “risk-taking” and a desire to be the best–all things that appear to be mutually exclusive from reaching out and asking for help. Next to those is “emotional control", a quality that has unfortunately become synonymous with suppression in a state of gender roles where we are continually told to dry our tears and “be a man”. The consequences speak for themselves: of the 121 Americans that die by suicide each day, 93 are men. That totals 31,000 male suicide victims annually in the United States (in 2015, at least).
So a crisis birthed by silence carries on in silence. Professor Louis Appleby of the University of Manchester calls it the “quiet epidemic” and one that, unfortunately, cannot “come down dramatically just by providing more mental health services”. The persistent problem, he asserts, is that men are taught not to conceptualize their issues as medical, and instead attribute any perceived shortcomings to weakness on their part. How can we compel men to seek help without it feeling like they’re indulging a weakness?
Anybody who has gone through treatment for mental illness can attest that assessing your feelings, articulating them and trying your hardest to manage them is as challenging an experience as any. In many cases, the stress and isolation one feels while they struggle is as great as any physical strain minus any visibility. Managing takes sacrifice. It’s past time that we all recognize and respect that the endurance one has to seek and undergo treatment is one of the greatest strengths a person can tap into and more meaningful than any of the “qualities” listed further above associated with men today.
I remember telling my fraternity brothers about my clinical depression and the intensive care of it battering my schedule and the true pleasure did not come from just the catharsis of confessing it. Rather, it came from having nearly all of them come to me personally and tell me about their own experiences with their mental health and how much they could identify. I teared up when one told me how talking about it motivated him to find treatment too. The conversation about self-care is so important so we should not be expected to put it on mute.
As we make headway with the wider image of men and mental health (Hollywood has gone from Gary Cooper to Barry Jenkins), I pray some of the noxious machismo will ease and we will rethink resilience. Until then, all we can do is be as open as possible and realize that showing “vulnerability” is actually a great demonstration of strength. We have to be brave enough to be ourselves.