The male mental health crisis requires attention and a complex solution
January 16, 2020
Imagine being at the cusp of drowning. Imagine feeling the currents of water pulling you down as your body flails for a gasp of breath. Imagine being unable to scream for help. Now imagine walking down a hallway and hearing everything. Every whisper, every laugh, and no matter what you listen to, it somehow always seems to be about you.
For over 16 million Americans, this is the reality they face every day. Depression is something that looms over a person, a phantom of self-doubt, an angel of anxiety. Yet, many see it as a source of inspiration. It can be very motivating if controlled. Everyone has felt sadness; it is one of the qualities of life. This experience can carry a sense of ignorance; after all, if they were able to get over their sadness, anyone can.
This ignorance has defined the teaching and treatment of mental health for most of the history of psychological thought. Today, we live in a society that, at the very least, acknowledges that mental health matters. A world that still undermines the role that mental stability plays in a person’s life.
Why do school shootings happen? Why does no one see when a person is sad? Why do so many people seem to lack empathy? There are no easy answers to these questions nor easy solutions. Yet, these questions that used to be mere afterthoughts in the American psyche now dominate a national conversation. Students now walk into school with more deep-seated anxiety of a potential school shooter. A viral clip of downtown New York showed a mass stampede of people going wild due to a motorcycle blowing out. All the while, people still lack access, or sometimes the support, they need to seek out help.
The conversation around depression, anxiety, and the medicines that ease their symptoms has long alluded to men’s mental health specifically. Men are 3.5 times more likely to commit suicide than women, and white males committed 70% of all suicides in the United States. Despite this, there’s been a long-running stigma around men’s mental health from both men and women. The shame comes from the basic fact that often when men’s mental health is brought up, it’s to demean women and try to argue that men are oppressed because they commit suicide more. Naturally, this narrative has led to the entire conversation, becoming incredibly uncomfortable with no one wanting to talk about the elephant in the room. Despite the lack of willingness to discuss this topic, more and more men die and even more become radicalized.
“I never really noticed how sad I was until I found I was crying every night,” an anonymous senior, which this article will refer to as Joel said.
“I was scared to tell my parents; they still don’t know the extent of my mental health. Instead of seeking help, I turned to substance abuse, first alcohol then other drugs,” Joel said. Joel lacked the necessary help he needed to alleviate his problems. His story, like thousands of others, shows a common theme, toxic masculinity, and social pressures.
“My family is very traditionalist and conservative. I think that the reason why I felt so gagged is that I was supposed to be the ‘man’ of the household. My parents didn’t bring me up as a person that told others their problems, so I grew up very gagged from reality,” Joel said. The American Psychological Association finds that many traditional definitions of masculinity, such as power, stoicism, and self-sufficiency, leading to eventual violence and depression due to challenges to that perception. Joseph Pleck, a former professor at the Department of Human Development at UIUC, created the Masculine Gender Role Strain Paradigm, a series of categories that trigger masculine aggression and depression. The five types include physical, inadequacy, emotional inexpressiveness, subordination to women, intellectual inferiority, and performance failure.
Physical inadequacy is the process of a male feeling inadequate with himself in both a physical sense and an emotional sense. Feeling unhappy with your body or being perceived as being feminine fall under this category of emotional distress. In the same way that the media defined what the “perfect” girl should be, popular media has also established the perfect man. Physical inadequacy falls under this guise as many men feel inadequate when compared to other men, which leads to the hateful spite that’s beginning to rise in the modern-day.
Inexpressiveness is the distress that men feel after being conditioned not to show emotion. Often, simple actions like comforting a friend will bring a large amount of awkwardness. This often leads to the suppression of emotions even when in situations where nothing but good would come from showing them. Some men will find themselves feeling unable to tell their partners that they love them, and in other cases, some refuse to try to seek them out altogether cause they don’t feel like they deserve love. The media has long played up the man to be the unemotional robot of a household. Sigmund Freud proposed the idea of a “death drive” that all humans possess. The concept of the death drive comes down to a subconscious human tendency to drive themselves into self-destruction. Freud uses the death drive to argue that a common theme in his contemporary western culture was that the journey to self-destruction would often cause aggression. Freud wrote that “Civilization, therefore, obtains mastery over the individual’s dangerous desire for aggression by weakening and disarming it and by setting up an agency within him to watch over it, like a garrison in a conquered city.” Essentially, Freud argues that society essentially forces men to disarm their feelings by forcing them to be virtually emotionless, which in the end will only make the aggression worse. Freud’s work isn’t universally acclaimed, however. Another theory argues that people will often drive themselves to self-destruction, not due to any particular instinct to death, but because they gain immediate happiness from performing those actions. For example, a person addicted to drugs does drugs because it provides immediate relief, a person who plays a dangerous sport does it because it brings him instant popularity and happiness.
Similarly, bottling up emotions is often the easiest way to handle them. When given the choice of either looking weak to your loved ones or just pretending everything’s ok, one option will bring more immediate happiness. Whether one chooses to follow Freud or more contemporary philosophies, both interpretations touch on the inherent problem with men and mental health.
Subordination to women is one of the main reasons why there’s a robust anti-female stance among some circles today. The rise of movements like the meninists, incels, and other inherently counter-cultural movements like them all have the basis of men not being willing to let women tell them what to do. Let us take the meninist, for example. The meninist movement isn’t truly about drawing attention to men’s rights and struggles, which would actually be needed. In reality, it’s merely a movement trying to argue that women are somehow oppressing men through feminism and solely acts as an anti-feminist organization. Many of these men were raised by a society that pushed the narrative of the “docile” woman, similar to the cult of domesticity of the antebellum period and the 1950s. When their notions about women are challenged, and suddenly they begin to work under women or begin to be attacked by them in arguments, they get defensive. Gender conflict starts at an early age. “Boys rule, girls drool,” or the reverse of that has been used over and over again in elementary schools around the country. This mentality is ultimately just childhood innocence and ignorance; over time, however, things change as boys and girls grow up the inherent boys vs. girls mentality used to fade away as they grew up. In the internet age, however, a new path has opened for many boys.
A young boy of around 12 or 13 years old just got used to middle school and is slowly getting more and more mature as he transitions away from his elementary school mentality. He just got his first phone, which he uses to watch funny videos on YouTube and has an overall normal modern childhood. One day, he stumbles upon an interview on his recommended feed. The video shows a woman with dyed hair scowling on its thumbnail and is titled “Triggered Feminist cringe compilation.” The boy is naturally curious, clicks on the video, and watches 10 minutes of cherrypicked clips of radical feminists attacking men and getting “triggered.” The child has a great time watching it since he still has that same boys vs. girls mentality from his younger years. The video ends, and he sees even more compilations filled to the brim with feminists complaining and arguing. At one point, the boy begins to draw a caricature of what a feminist is due to what he’s watching in those videos. He now sees feminists as crazy women with dyed hair who want to take away his freedoms and think he’s evil for being male. One day, a new kind of video is recommended to the boy. The video is once again a clip of a feminist arguing with a man, this time; however, a political commentator interrupts the video halfway through to refute what the woman is saying. He strawman’s the woman’s arguments and impresses the boy by seemingly being a voice of reason when compared to the hyper-radical woman he’s watching. The boy continues to watch the political commentator and sees him branch out from just feminists to Black Lives Matter activists, or leftists, or democrats. Soon the boy associates the left with the hyper radical feminist he caricatured. The boy doesn’t know it, but he has been radicalized into the far right. This is why the rise of the internet has also led to an increase of the far-right and anti-female groups. Many young boys that haven’t even left middle school are introduced into the idea of the crazy feminist thanks to that same boy vs. girls mentality they’ve always had since they were kids, which then forces them into a political rabbit hole that’s difficult to get out of.
While the introduction of new tools of radicalization does explain anti-feminist sentiment among young men, it doesn’t fully explain why there is also an anti-female sentiment among some circles of boys. To clarify that, Sigmund Freud will once again come in handy. Freud developed the theory of Id, ego, and superego. Freud sees these three forces as a psychic apparatus within the brain. The Id is the instinctual desires that all humans have. The Id is often said to be the first of the three to fully develop as our animalistic instincts mostly decide what we desire. When a child is born, it’s Id is wholly mechanical and slowly expands to adopt some values we now want as humans. The Id is often defined as having no morals, merely being an animalistic instinct to survive. The Id later develops a branch that completely branches off and becomes ego. The ego is labeled as the mediator between the id and the superego. The ego takes the reality principle and conforms the Id to the reality of the situation. The ego seeks to attain the many pleasures the Id wants realistically. Many of Freud’s contemporaries would later argue that the ego is what separates us from ordinary animals. While we all share an Id, we have an ego to normalize or animalistic instincts and obtain happiness using practical methods. The superego is the implementation of cultural and societal rules that the individual learns growing up. Whereas the Id of a person seeks to get them instant self-gratification, the superego seeks a person to fit in and conform to the rules set by their culture. This means that the superego and the Id are always fundamentally in conflict with the ego being the mediator within the two.
The Id demands that humans seek companionship and sexual gratification. Many boys, however, are tied down by their superego, which among many troubled and depressed boys, overwhelms the ego and acts as the dominant side of their mentalities. This makes it, so boys begin to blame women and cultural norms for their failures at pleasing their Id. The hatred they have for themselves, women, and cultural norms, is what drives them to commit violent attacks or to subscribe to dangerous ideologies. It’s incredibly easy to make fun of the boys who act like this, and frankly, it’s completely warranted. However, it’s important to note that many of these boys are lost and lacked the proper support they needed to get through their issues and find their place in the world. Many mass shooters over the past decade have written in their manifestos about their hatred for women and a culture that always put them down and never bothered to help them. As a little kid, these things aren’t unnatural. The problem is that these kids aren’t fully developing in a way that has them mature from the days of boys vs. girls. Instead, many political groups have capitalized on the existence of the internet and toxic masculinity to draw in troubled youth and radicalize them into hating women, leftists, and a society that seems to only make fun of them when they discuss their existence.
Over the past few months, presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke has proposed a plan to ban all AR-15s in an effort to end gun violence. To put it simply, this will not work. While the existence of ARs in the free market is problematic and should be addressed eventually, the actual problem lies in the reasons why these shootings happen. The reasons why many men are radicalized or fall into depression and feeling inadequate may have been explained already. However, there’s still no concrete plan to begin to change the discussion around men and their mental health.
Rapper, producer, and activist, Kanye West, proclaimed in a tweet before the release of his newest LP “Ye” that he would never be able to recreate some of his most celebrated albums like “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” and “Yeezus” if he was on meds. He’d later embrace this mentality in “Ye” and “Kids See Ghosts” as he sang about his disability being a superpower and meds being fundamentally bad for his creative process. This mentality is shared by a ton of people all across the United States. While a right amount of people did criticize West on his promotion of not taking medication for your mental health problems, a large number of others praised his condemnation of taking medicine. Just like men and mental health, the role of drugs in improving the mental state of people has also been a very touchy subject. Misinformation and hyperbole have shrouded the issue for years, with many deciding that taking a medication isn’t worth it.
The thing with many of the current narratives surrounding antidepressants is that many of them are grounded in some reality because these medicines affect people in different ways. The most significant side effect that people worry about, including Kanye, is the loss of your personality and originality. Many blog posts and tweets have been written about some emotional disruption happening at the hands of opioids. SSRIs (Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) and SNRIs (Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors), both of which are used to regulate depression and anxiety, have both been proven not to dull a person’s personality if taken correctly. Of course, if one is to overuse a specific antidepressant, it will naturally affect their abilities to achieve cognitive thought. Despite that, though, the usage of antidepressants will, in most cases, alleviate the extra depression and anxiety weighing down on a person and allow them to show their personality for what it is truly. It’s worth noting that antidepressants are not “happy pills,” meaning that someone who does not suffer from clinical depression will not feel any happier by taking them. In the end, the drugs serve to alleviate many of the symptoms associated with depression to make them manageable.
Most myths associated with antidepressants follow this same structure. Since labels are forced to put side effects of a particular pill no matter the likelihood of actually getting them, many people are turned off by the idea of potentially taking a dangerous substance. In reality, psychiatrists make sure that dosages are ideal for the client and will often caution the consumer to take it slow and to get accustomed to the pill before giving them full dosages. In the end, the responsibility falls on the consumer to be able to manage themselves when taking these drugs.
Men’s mental health has always been a sensitive topic for both men and women. Men will often deny that they need help, and many women have begun to see the rise of anti-women groups and the rise of men’s mental health awareness as similar movements leading to tension. The first thing we must all acknowledge is that this is a problem and that people are suffering due to it. The country has done an excellent job of beginning to draw more and more attention to the mental health of its citizens, but it must go further. To tackle the problems of gun violence, anti-female sentiment, and suicide within the male community, the government, must address the issues of toxic masculinity, depression, and anxiety that plagues young men all across the country so that they can be saved from being indoctrinated into dangerous ideologies.