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Stigma higher for men?

“I’ll be called a pussy”, “It’s embarrassing”, “Others will laugh at me, they’ll think I’m weak”, “I should be able to just suck it up and deal with it on my own”, “Men aren’t supposed to cry”, “Men are supposed to be TOUGH!”...

These are just some of the things I’ve heard from close male friends that are struggling with mental illness. The stigma is real and the belief that there is something shameful and wrong with you if have a mental illness seems to be even worse for men than it does for women.

In Canada, 4 out of every 5 completed suicides are male. That is, 80% of all suicides are committed by men. That is an outrageously high number and clearly disproportionate. While it’s true that one explanatory factor for this statistic is the fact that men tend to use more lethal means to end their lives, another contributing factor to these tragic endings is STIGMA. In a way, it’s double binded for men. First, there’s the stigma for having a mental illness in the first place, but second, there is the notion that men are supposed to be immune to mental illness! Women are expected to be emotional apparently and stereotyped as being "weaker" than men...

Note that people with mental illness are not weak, nor are women. These are myths and stereotypes.

Stigma isn’t a simple thought. It’s not one false belief or myth. It is a series of beliefs that have been deeply ingrained into our societal value system. It is multi-faceted, has many faces and many layers that keep it alive. We are fighting against many barriers when we talk about stigma, not just a single word.  That is why it is so important for us all to talk about it, educate ourselves and each other and find a way to break down the shame that prevents people from getting the help that they need.

As a society, we have traditionally raised and created repressed boys and men, socialized to deny parts of themselves, with no way out. Boys are told to be tough, while the expression of emotions is seen as weak and discouraged. Are we surprised that at ages 15, 20, 25, etc., we have a generation of men that have no clue how to express themselves? Of course I’m generalizing in a large way. There are lots of men that are great communicators and many men that write, or create music, or art or talk about their problems or use sports as an outlet to deal with their emotional ups and downs in some sort of healthy way. But the point is that a large proportion of men don’t necessarily know how to deal with emotional issues. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), men often mask and act out mental health and emotional problems through risky behaviour such as alcohol / drug abuse, irritability, verbal violence and abusiveness or womanizing.  These are all signs that there is something going on internally, such as depression.

Furthermore, symptoms of depression, anxiety, stress or other mental illness will often manifest themselves physically. Your immune system is weakened and colds, headaches, backaches, dizziness, nausea, sleep disturbances, etc., are very common. This is especially the case if the underlying mental illness is not being treated or even acknowledged. Many men don’t make the connection between these symptoms and the emotional problems end up being compounded by physical ones as well.

Dr. Don McCreary, co-chair of Toronto Men's Health Network (TMHN) and associate editor of the International Journal of Men's Health, offers hope though. He is cited by the CMHA as stating that the increased awareness about men’s mental health issues “may help in terms of reducing the stigma attached to mental health”.

What do you think we can do to tackle the stigma that surrounds men’s mental health issues? What can we do to reduce it? Please share your thoughts.