Whether it be the #MeToo, #TimesUp, Black Lives Matter, women’s equality or transgender rights movements, the United States is in a time of rapid social change. In the midst of such high-profile social movements, there may be a subtler social shift happening under the radar – a reduction in the stigma regarding men’s mental health issues. In the United States, and many other cultures around the world, boys and young men have been socially conditioned from a young age to fit into a particular narrative of what it means to be a “real man.” This ideal is personified in the John Wayne rugged individual who needs no one; the strong, silent-type, whose strength is characterized by fearlessness and out-competing rivals. To acknowledge one’s emotions, with the exception of anger or aggression, is to be weak and even cowardly. I would argue that these cultural ideals are imprinted at such a young age, and are so pervasive in our culture, that even the most progressive men likely harbor some of these feelings on an unconscious level. This traditional view of masculinity has led to a disproportionate stigma surrounding men admitting to, or seeking treatment for, mental health problems. Indeed, men are significantly less likely to seek mental health treatment or talk to others about mental health struggles than women (see this article in the Guardian). Specifically, studies show that much of what keeps men from seeking treatment is the internalized stigma that experiencing mental health problems means that they are “weak.” The stakes for remedying this situation are high. Not only are there a great number of men (and their families by extension) suffering unnecessarily, but men are significantly more likely to die from suicide. This brings us to more recent events that appear to be challenging this narrative. A story that brought hope that the stigma may be changing was a recent ESPN interview with NBA all-star player for the Toronto Raptors DeMar DeRozan, in which he spoke out about his struggle with depression (see video below). Rather than getting criticized for being “weak”, DeRozan said: “The response I got from people was so uplifting, positive, refreshing. … You just look at certain things. People say ‘you helped me. Because if you’re going through something like this, I can get through it.’ It’s incredible.” Days after DeRozan’s revelation, Cleveland Cavaliers all-star forward Kevin Love wrote an article discussing his problems with panic attacks, one of which forced him to leave a game and go to the hospital. Importantly, he says he was inspired to come forward after hearing DeRozan’s statement. This shows the snow-ball effect that can happen when men begin to talk openly about such issues. Love too was overwhelming praised and supported. For example, Lebron James, his teammate and arguably the greatest basketball player sent the tweet shown above.
In addition to athletes, of which there are many more than the ones mentioned above, the rapper and cultural icon Jay-Z recently spoke about how he has benefited from going to therapy. He advocates the end of the stigma of receiving mental health services, calling it “ridiculous.” While these are just a few anecdotal accounts, I feel they may represent a broader cultural change in how men view mental health. I chose these examples specifically because they come from the hyper-masculine cultures of sports and hip-hop music. I am not of the opinion that traditional male ideals are all inherently negative and need to be discarded. Rather, the concepts of strength and fearlessness need to be expanded: true strength and fearlessness is the courage to be vulnerable and access the help needed to better oneself, one’s family and community. Matt Christian, MSW is a therapist with Insight Into Action Therapy. He utilizes a strengths-based approach that leverages clients’ abilities and resiliency in the process of recovery. He also has extensive experience as a practitioner and student in several meditation traditions and incorporates when appropriate. Matt has availability in both Ashburn and Fairfax offices. You can reach him at 703-646-7664 x14 or [email protected].