Guys, We Need to Talk About Mental Health — and Yes, I Mean GUYS

Keilee Takata

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy warned the nation of a growing mental health crisis in teens and young adults by issuing a public health advisory called “Protecting Youth Mental Health.” In his advisory he states that hospital visits for suspected suicide attempts in 2021 have risen 51 percent in girls and 4 percent in boys since 2019. Although studies have shown that women and girls have much higher rates of recorded mental illnesses and are more likely to seek mental health support, men and boys have higher suicide rates than women and girls.
“A lot of [this gap has] to do with access to firearms and access to stuff that [is] more [capable of] actually going through with what suicide actually is,” said Student Assistance Counselor, Ms. Arielle Sherman.
Ann Sullivan, a licensed independent clinical social worker working for a large pediatric facility in Rhode Island, attributes this disparity to the number of young men who pursue help from mental health professionals. “If people don’t seek help, it never gets recorded. If someone is suffering and hasn’t told their doctor or hasn’t told anyone where it would get put in a medical chart, then it can’t get collected as data,” Sullivan said.
Pervasive gender expectations can stop men and boys from gaining mental health support, with many believing that asking for help is emasculating. “Men and boys, even from a very young age, are discouraged from even things like crying if they fall
down,” said Sullivan. “There’s a lot of messages around being the strong silent type or sucking it up, not being a baby — there’s even expressions like, ‘don’t be a girl about that.’”
This stigma is societal, showing up in movies, TV, and other media, as well as social expectations and gender roles. An English teacher who has extensively studied Gender/Queer Theory, Mr. Alex Taber, commented on the gender roles society assigns us, citing gender theorist Judith Butler’s ideas on gender being a performance. “Individuals learn to play gender roles that are expected of them,” Taber said. “These expectations are created by and then reinscribed within society. When it comes to gender expectations, society relies on – while also conflating – the binaries of male/female and masculine/feminine. In turn, this limits all other genders and sexualities that cannot be neatly categorized within the aforementioned binaries. Deviating from gender expectations – to not perform the expected role accordingly – creates tension as it challenges what society considers to be normative.”
These expectations are also reinforced within households, friend groups, and other social circles. “I think the foundation is integral for sure…learned behavior, however you talked about mental health in your house, within your friend groups, I think they all affect [this stereotype],” Sherman said.
Being more open with friends can help young men grow more comfortable talking about their mental health. “Friends [should be] able to just talk about what’s going on in their life and talk about their feelings, thoughts, behaviors, urges, whatever,” Sherman said.
Traits often associated with femininity, like sensitivity, openness, and understanding, can encourage women to talk to people about their feelings and struggles, while traits often associated with masculinity, like independence, resilience, and aggression, can encourage young men to deal with their problems on their own. “[With girls] it’s ok and it’s even sometimes cool to say ‘I have a therapist’ or ‘this is what my therapist said.’… I think it would be a really important step [for boys] knowing that [reaching out] can be a very strong and independent [action].” said Sullivan.
However, most often associated with masculinity are not negative and embracing a mixture of all traits, without assigning genders to them, can create positive mindsets surrounding mental health. Still, the culture of toxic masculinity, and believing one must be a “man’s man,” can isolate many men and boys and lead them to believe that they aren’t allowed to feel upset or that they aren’t real men for struggling.
Sherman said, “[There is a] societal idea [for men] of ‘push through until the end,’ ‘harder is better,’ ‘harder, faster, stronger’ — things like that [make us think], ‘ok so what is that doing for us? Are we just tormenting our bodies until we explode?’”This “push through” mindset and suppression of feelings, without any support from others, can often lead to emotional explosions, or crises, which can sometimes take the form of suicide.
“A lot of thought goes into [suicide] and if they’ve suppressed things for so long it’s like their first cry for help is also their last, which is tragic,” Sullivan said.
Social media also has a heavy impact in how mainly younger generations perceive themselves. “The whole ‘Facebook phenomenon’ where you look and you think everyone’s life is better than yours and everyone is happier than you are and everyone has more friends than you do, that happens to males and females,” said Sullivan.
This airbrushed version of reality encourages people of all genders to compare themselves to others they see online, with some platforms being specifically designed to target people’s insecurities. “This is not the real world,” said Sullivan. “It’s a little bit like TV, where things are cleaned up and made pretty and it doesn’t mean that everybody’s life is easier than yours.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has also worsened mental health for many adolescents. Long periods of isolation due to quarantining and limited social outlets have contributed to feelings of loneliness in many youths of all genders.
The US Surgeon General’s Youth Mental Health Advisory states that anxiety symptoms have doubled since the onset of the pandemic, with 20 percent of youths experiencing symptoms, and 25 percent of youths experiencing symptoms of depression. The advisory also states that many national and international challenges are having negative affects on youths, like “the national reckoning over the deaths of Black Americans at the hands of police officers, including the murder of George Floyd; COVID-related violence against Asian Americans; gun violence; an increasingly polarized political dialogue; growing concerns about climate change; and emotionally- charged misinformation.”
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, men are more likely than women to use illicit drugs and other substances like alcohol. Many people struggling with their mental health turn to drugs to cope. “I think that you don’t have substance abuse without mental health struggles,” Sherman said. “When any of us are struggling with something, there is always something we turn to. Whether that’s bouncing your leg, or whether that’s biting your fingernails, or it’s just fleeing the situation (like fight, flight, freeze…), sometimes substances are that ‘flight’ because it could take them fully out of the situation.”
Although these substances can provide a temporary relief or distraction from one’s problems, they don’t solve them. Substance abuse can cause health problems, worsen mental health issues, and even be fatal. Many teenagers start to experiment with substances, as adolescence is very difficult on a chemical level, and on an emotional level for many.
“Having mental health symptoms, not getting help for it, and then experimenting with drugs is a total recipe for somebody who may self-medicate for their whole life,” said Sullivan.
Along with higher rates of substance abuse, male-identifying members of the LGBTQ+ community are more likely to face mental health struggles. Many LGBTQ+ people face discrimination for their gender identity and sexual orientation, which has been linked to high rates of psychiatric disorders, substance abuse, and suicide.
Our climate is slowly shifting into one that is more accepting of all people and the baggage they come with. People are more encouraged to be themselves, and part of that is being more open about how they feel.
One very simple and effective way to encourage people to be more open about their mental health is just by talking about it within comfortable social circles. “How can we break down the stigma of the shame feeling of ‘oh my God I shouldn’t feel this way,’ or ‘my friend doesn’t feel this way’? Maybe your friend just hasn’t said anything about it and they also feel the exact same way,” Sherman said. “We don’t actually know if we don’t start talking about it and I think that’s where it starts.”
If you are in need of mental health resources: Reach out to our school psychologist, Ms. Calitri, at [email protected]; our school social worker, Mr. Hughes, at [email protected]; or our student assistance counselor, Ms. Sherman, at [email protected]. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-88255 Reach the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741