In conjunction with World Mental Health Day on 10 October, Reem Shaheen explains why asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness.
Do you remember when Barack Obama said that he felt the world would be a better place if more leaders were female? Well, I think it goes deeper than that. Right down to the everyman, in fact. But here’s the rub. Sometimes, the ultra-masculine image that male politicians feel the need to portray, well that’s what actually gets them elected. As a result, this need for men to appear invulnerable can be a big reason behind the toxicity that surrounds them and mental health issues.
We’ve seen a shift in the past few years, for sure. An increased awareness regarding mental health – helping to ‘normalise’ it in the process. But the fact remains that men are statistically still twice more likely to commit suicide because of depression than women. Why? Because women will, more often than not, seek help.
This is how a typical session working with a man will often go: the majority start out with overriding feelings of shame. They resent themselves for ending up in therapy, but also feel intimated by the process. Suddenly, they’re sitting on a couch with a woman, expected to open up about their lives, mental health, vulnerabilities, and pain. I get it; it’s pretty overwhelming. So they use different tactics to build walls between us. A few Arab clients have insisted on using English in the session as a way to create distance and to feel less vulnerable. Others have explained that they prefer to keep the conversation rational and intellectual to do the same. It can be tough. But when you do make progress, it’s quite a thing. When a client begins to joke around, or even tease me a little – that’s when I know that the therapy can start. After 10 years of private practice, the transformation men experience remains one of my favourite parts of the job.
The stereotype that men feel the need to perpetuate begins with childhood. Having been given ideas of how to behave, men are raised being told that they shouldn’t really show emotion. In the mind of a child, this can easily translate to ‘don’t feel at all’. As a result, they grow up disconnected from their feelings entirely, leaving themselves at great risk of developing mental health disorders in later life.
Men are just bombarded with societal expectations; they have to get a lucrative career, support their families, and more. In many cases, self-esteem and self-worth are directly connected to professional success. Failure to fulfil their patriarchal role means that self-worth and self-esteem crash. This is when depression, anxiety and panic attacks can begin to creep in. You can add feelings of loneliness, isolation and rejection to that pile, too. But men often don’t have the tools to manage these emotions. When it comes down to it, the only acceptable feeling for a lot of men is anger.
While the increasing number who come and work through their feelings is encouraging, it’s often something of a double-edged sword, too. Most of the men I see feel shame, not only for their situation but for admitting that they’re struggling in the first place. They describe going to counselling as a failure in itself. This is why they delay seeking help or never really share their troubles with a loved one. Men feel that something is inherently wrong with them for struggling and for not being able to simply shake it off. Unfortunately, by the time they eventually do reach out, their symptoms can be so entrenched that it has already affected their psychological welfare – and even that of their families, too.
How do we stop the cycle? Well, other than redressing the traditional roles and expectations of men, the wider goal is to continue normalising mental illness just like any other illness. I think acceptance is crucial. If you’re feeling depressed or anxious, acknowledge those feelings. Take them, honour them, and then just let them pass. Ask yourself this question: “What do you do when you experience positive emotions?” You don’t try to push them away, you allow yourself to feel them, right? It’s worth remembering that, however painful negative feelings are, they too will run their course and pass.
Then, there’s self-care. Why should that be any different from being mindful of diet or a gym routine? Self-care can be the gateway to good mental health. It’s about making time for yourself and could be anything from enjoying a hobby to turning off your phone early each night to creating boundaries at work and even cutting toxic individuals out of your life.
The more that men open up about their emotions, the more connected they’ll feel. It’s this connection that can change everything. Once you realise that you aren’t alone and that others feel the same way as you do, that’s when you can truly start to move on and grow.