I’ve been in several therapy groups throughout my mental health career, and one thing I found profoundly strange was the frequent absence of other men seeking assistance with their mental health. When I wasn’t the only man in a given therapy group, there was perhaps only one other man sharing their struggles with mental illness. According to my research, only one third of patients in treatment for mental illness are men. Why do so few men seek therapy?
Men are taught from an early age to bottle up most of our feelings.
Men are socialized to repress most of their feelings, aside from rage, in order to fit with our societal definition of what manhood means. It is socially acceptable for little boys to roughhouse with one another in anger without fear of reprisal from their fathers, but the same cannot be said for acts of emotional intimacy or vulnerability. A man can see another man screaming violently at another human being without it violating their conceptualization of manhood in a way that seeing another man openly cower or weep does not. A boy who is emotionally vulnerable might live in fear of being labeled a “sissy” or any number of sexist or homophobic taunts meant to wound his masculinity, and that fear persists unconfronted in many men throughout their adulthood.
As men, the glimpses of vulnerability we might be fortunate enough to see are modeled mostly by women and queer people.
Many of us internalize this and assume that emotional vulnerability and communication are not compatible with the masculine archetype. In the pursuit of performing this role, we cut ourselves off from vital elements of our own human experience, and close the door on the sort of insight and investigation we might find through therapy.
Men are told that our masculinity hinges on a very narrow and specific definition of strength.
A definition that does not include asking for or deserving help, much less needing it. We are led to believe that our role is to give and provide. On its face, this belief may not appear to be toxic at all, but that is exactly what makes it so insidious and challenging to confront. Personally, I have pursued this belief to the edge of my own ruin. I believed that it was my purpose to work, sleep, and suffer through my illnesses (physical or mental), insecurities, and intrusive thoughts in silence for the betterment of the people who relied on me.
So what can we do to challenge the beliefs that keep us out of therapy, and what can the people who love us do to encourage our journey into recovery? If you are a man struggling under the weight of mental illness, I think the most powerful and masculine thing you could do is take accountability for your pain by seeking the treatment of a professional. If you had a broken leg, you wouldn’t try to x-ray it and put a cast on it yourself, so why would you expect that your healing your mind would work any different? If a loved one is suffering under their mental illness and refuses to seek help, you cannot force them into recovery, but you can set clear boundaries so that you do not bear the brunt of their mental illness, and you can provide an environment of open and honest communication where therapy is encouraged. It is hard work going to therapy, especially if you feel that you should be able to work through your difficulties on your own in silence, but I promise that it is much harder to go on through life carrying the burden of your past by yourself.
Therapy for men is incredibly important. Click here for more mental health resources.
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Sunny Ebsary is a writer and singer-songwriter from Tampa, FL. When he’s not sing-songwriting or just regular writing, he’s probably drinking water with a lot of ice, having a staring contest with his cat, or giving people great ideas. You can listen to Sunny’s music here.