Mental health is an issue that affects everyone, irrespective of their gender, race, or social status. However, society has placed many expectations on men, such as being strong, independent, and resilient, making it difficult for them to open up about their mental health issues. As a result, many men suffer in silence and bottle up their problems.
According to a World Health Organisation (WHO) report, 13 774 suicides were reported in South Africa in 2019. Of these deaths, 10 861 were men, while only 2 913 were women. A survey by the mental health foundation also found that not only are men less likely than women to seek professional support, but they are also less likely to disclose a mental health problem to friends and family.
Dealing with stigma
Having suffered from depression, Zamokuhle Masondo from Ennerdale in Johannesburg, who is now a mental health activist, confirms that there is a stigma associated with people who battle mental health issues, especially men.
He speaks about his struggle as a young man navigating mental illness, fighting stigma, and challenging stereotypes about how men should deal with their feelings and emotions. Societal norms have defined what a man is and should be, causing more hindrance to men opening up about mental health as it may represent weakness.
Suffering in silence
“All I knew was how to suffer in silence like most men and tough it out. I feared that I would not be understood and that I would be judged,” he says.
“Growing up in an abusive home, I developed the habit of not speaking out about anything I was going through because I was embarrassed. Today I am learning how to speak up about my mental health and how to reach out for support.
“We grow up with certain ideas of what a man should be. Men are supposed to be strong; men are not supposed to cry; we are protectors and providers, and our idea of masculinity does not allow us to be associated with anything that is weak. Unfortunately, mental illness is associated with weakness, which is contrary to what we know a man should be, so talking about mental health as a man feels like talking about weakness and is anti-manhood.
Masondo explains that there are numerous fears men tend to have when it comes to seeking help concerning mental health. They may be labelled as crazy, and they fear being diagnosed because they think that their mental illness diagnosis defines them. People with mental health issues are considered to have lost their minds, and men fear that association.
“Due to a lack of knowledge, most men also consider mental health issues something they can handle on their own without help or support from the outside. They consider seeking help an indication that they are somehow incapable of doing something themselves. Also, they do not want there to be a record of them having received treatment. For job purposes and so forth, they do not want a potential employer to not consider them for a job because of mental health conditions they have received treatment for in the past.”
There are support groups you can be part of if you need mental health support as a man. Being a depression and suicide survivor, Masondo founded Dark Cloud Above Me, an organisation through which he creates awareness about mental health and supports people living with mental illness.
He mentions other organisations such as the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag), Mental Pulse, and many more, adding that there are also apps you can get where you can be connected with people who can provide mental health support.
“More and more people are doing this; more mental health community activists are speaking out, and corporate companies are conducting mental health workshops for their employees and implementing mental health-friendly policies. The media is covering more and more topics around mental health for men. The more awareness, education, and support there is for men’s mental health, the more willing men will be to open up about their mental health issues.
“Seeking help is not a weakness; reach out; there are people who care about you and who want to support you. It is ok not to understand what you are going through; be open to learning and educating yourself about mental health. Read up on it, watch podcasts, YouTube videos, and movies, listen to music, and read up to understand it more. There are people who are qualified to assist and treat you; do not be ashamed of seeking the help that you need,” Masondo recommends.
Teach boys from an early age
Itumeleng Mokoena from Pretoria, says he is an extrovert, so it is easier for him to speak about certain things, but he also believes that fear of judgment has created this hesitant mindset in many men because masculinity has overclouded men to believe that they are stronger than their emotions and see no need to speak out about their mental health. He further emphasises that speaking up about issues is more of a strength than a weakness. If you speak up, it shows you are a strong person with rigid emotional intelligence.
“Men suppress their issues rather than talking about them because of the stigma of not being sensitive, which is normally created by society’s perspective of how a man should be strong and bottle everything up. The phobia of being judged for seeking help is because society portrays men as sheep who should not show emotions; once you show emotion, you will be regarded as weak.
Strength versus weakness
“Men deal with several critical difficulties that, when suppressed, eventually lead to suicide. Boys need to be taught how to deal with their emotions at an early age and that speaking out about their issues is a strength rather than a weakness.
Clinical psychologist Nevern Subermoney from Johannesburg mentions that there are general hesitations in seeking help for mental health for both genders. According to him, people still fail to understand that it is a normal human part of life to struggle mentally. Overall, the belief that men should be leaders and mentally strong causes additional pressure on men.
Normalise speaking out
“Bottling things up in men can eventually play out in their behaviour, and there is minor control over that. Another danger is that one can turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms such as alcohol or physical conflict. If you avoid negative emotions, research shows that over time you can also be emotionally numb and stop feeling positive emotions,” says Subermoney.
He highlights that there are signs that someone needs professional help concerning a mental problem. “Are you distressed by what you are experiencing? Or, are you suffering in some way and would like to evaluate that suffering? And are your symptoms causing you to not function properly in life domains such as work, academics, social, or recreational domains?
Preventing future problems
“If all these questions are ticked, then there may be an underlying problem. However, people can improve their mental health without being in a problem state. Even if someone is not distressed or dysfunctional, working on their mental health can assist in preventing future problems and optimising their mind.
“One of the most effective ways to help men reduce their reluctance to deal with their mental health is to help them understand that regardless of who they are, they will feel sadness and anxiety, not because they are broken or there is anything wrong with them, but because they are human. Tragedy visits all of us, and emotions are allowed to be felt. Normalisation and relating to people can help them open up.”
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