We like to pretend we are ‘forward-thinking’ when it comes to Mental Health. We acknowledge the stigma surrounding it, we campaign, we write, we paint, we sing: we do all of this, but how much do we really talk about it? Acknowledging the existence of a stigma is not the same as combatting one, and this acknowledgment in no way separates us from it. Recently, I have found that this stigma has particular tract when it comes to male mental health, and it’s no wonder, when mental illness is archetypically presented as a weakness, that men are subject to these machinations. They’re meant to be the strong-men, the heroes, the indestructible, brooding epitomisations of masculinity. Men don’t cry. They are courageous, they are independent, they are beacons of power and tenacity. In these pictures of masculinity that we paint, there is no space for vulnerability or fragility. Traditional norms such as these perpetuate a culture within which men are reluctant to seek help for mental health problems (1), less likely to visit their doctor or discuss their mental health issues (2).
As a self-identifying woman, this phenomenon is one I find harder to grasp. There is no denying that women are subject to various levels of stigmatisation when it comes to mental health; the societal pressures placed on women are not dissimilar to those placed on men. But there is something explicitly niche about men’s mental health and the way men with mental health problems are encouraged to behave within society that appears to operate on an entirely new level. Something within the toxic realms of masculinity seems to restrict men from feeling able to talk about or express their emotional turmoil.
I sat down with Dodgeball President Michael Taricone in a one-on-one interview to discuss this topic further; Taricone is five-foot-eleven, athletic, outwardly confident and seems to fit within the masculine ‘blue-prints'. We begin our talk in Haris bar, our conversation backed by tinny pop music and casual chatter. I’m interested to establish what his definition of masculinity is and what it means to him before we go any further; Taricone takes time to think before giving me his first answer. “Growing up”, he tells me, “there was always the need to be ‘manly.’ Men are meant to be strong and powerful, providing for the family and not showing weakness. In certain countries like Italy, there’s a giant ‘machismo’ culture - the guys have to look super attractive, and are constantly judged on what they wear and what they look like.” He adds something flippantly here that strikes me. “Emotions are bad”, Taricone states with a laugh, but I’m aware how this throw-away line is indicative of something rooted deeper. “If you show signs of having feelings or emotions and you’re expressing them, it is seen as weak or a negative thing.”
When asked whether Taricone feels it is difficult for men in particular to discuss their mental health, he begins by admitting that it’s “actually a very easy conversation to have”, yet in broader society there is a definite lack of understanding. “I know if I was in my hometown where my parents are from in Italy, and I was trying to talk about my mental health there, it wouldn’t be the same. They don’t understand it, they’re not used to this being something that is spoken about.”
Our interview is interrupted by a Body Combat class that erupts in the lower floors of the building, and, unable to shout over the thud and boom of drum and bass, we pause our discussion and uproot somewhere more quiet. The empty classrooms of the AC Building at six o’clock provide the ideal backdrop for our conversation as we move toward more personal questions. “Oh, god,” Taricone laughs awkwardly when I tell him this, but his answer to my next question comes without hesitation. What makes you feel vulnerable? I ask him, and it’s with upsetting immediacy that he replies: “talking and feeling.”
“I just always found it difficult and uncomfortable,” he continues, but when probed, admits he doesn’t know exactly why this is. “I guess its because I come across as being weak. It’s opening up to someone; that’s information that clearly has a significant effect on you. If they’re not supportive, there’s the fear that it could actually worsen your problems, that people may think less of you.” Taricone’s fears are understandably valid when considering the societal pressures placed upon men to behave as “protectors” , rather than victims. We rely heavily on these traditional ideals of manhood, encouraging men to be outspoken, confident and dominant, when this in itself simultaneously silences their ability to express themselves and their struggles.
And here seems to lie the crux of this problem; it seems that, no matter how much we encourage the discus-sion of male mental health, we lack the ability to truly facilitate it. So how do we combat this? How do we let go of the masculine ideals that we, as a society, cling to? The truth is, there is no real answer or solution. It’s not as easy as putting a plaster on a paper cut, there’s no quick fix, no letting go. Just like other stigmas that surround things such as body-image, these strains of thinking are entrenched. Let’s face it, a single article like this one isn’t going to change the way the world thinks.
And yet, change almost always starts off small. It may be something as simple as a text to your mate on a sports team that starts up that much-needed discussion. It’s important we actively recognise the barriers men face in expressing their feelings or struggles and attempt to re-imagine it; if anything, opening up about mental health is an act of strength. There is strength in vulnerability because the two are not mutually exclusive, and as Taricone expressed, once we forgo the social-stuff, the conversation itself is “very easy” to have.
Emily Byfield-Riches is working in collaboration with Holly Marquez and the Support Zone as part of their Men Talk Health campaign. You can watch their recent video on the topic here.
1) Courtenay W.H. Constructions of masculinity and their influence on men's well-being: a theory of gender and health. Soc Sci Med. 2000;50:1385–1401
2) Schofield T., Connell R.W., Walker L., Wood J.F., Butland D.L. Understanding men's health and illness: A gender-relations approach to policy, research, and practice. J Am Coll Health. 2000;48:247–256