In a survey conducted by the Malaysian Ministry of Health, findings show that the national prevalence of depression in Malaysian adults is 2.3% - about half a million people. Despite these numbers, some people still find it hard to seek help and be open about their struggles with mental health.
This rings especially true for men, as studies show that men are more likely to underreport symptoms of depression compared to women. Many men also do not disclose their emotional distress to their physicians.
The problem is this: men’s unwillingness to speak is killing them.
Why is it so hard for men to speak up?
Traditional gender stereotypes are a top culprit. Gender norms are a range of behaviours and attitudes generally considered acceptable, appropriate, or desirable for a person based on that person’s biological or perceived sex. They are shaped by society, culture, and religion, and they all play a part in creating the ‘ideal’ that many men feel pressured to conform to. While gender norms vary from culture to culture, men who are physically strong or imposing, financially independent, and hold power positions are most admired.
For men who conform to gender norms or stereotypes, this is not a problem. But for men who do not, the repercussions are grave. When expressing emotion or showing vulnerability is considered a weakness, men are less likely to seek help when they struggle. The result is often paralysing self-reliance, enormous pressure to shoulder their burdens on their own, and the possible descent into a vicious spiral of anxiety, depression and self-loathing.
With such ideas being put into place and internalised, it’s no wonder why men find it difficult to seek help when facing problems, much less mental health problems. All these stereotypes only make it harder for them to get the professional help they may desperately need.
Words perpetuate stereotypes
“Man up”, “Don’t be a girl”, “Big boys, don’t cry”.
These are common, seemingly innocent statements used to prop people up and boost them to show support in the form of ‘tough love’. But what they are are demeaning, condescending statements that carry long-lasting adverse effects, particularly on boys and men, because the subtext of those statements is:
If you do not fulfil specific standards, then you are not a real man.
This narrative becomes even more harmful when comparisons between boys and girls are made. Belittling boys for “acting like a girl” paints the picture that girls are somehow inferior to boys, and so-called ‘feminine traits’, such as being emotional, non-confrontational or sensitive, are to be avoided for fear of seeming weak and lesser than other men.
These pressures force men to put on a facade, to appear put together, stoic, self-reliant and strong, even when they are not— to the detriment of their mental health.
Studies on the effect of masculine norms on the psyche of college men reveal that masculine norms are consistently and strongly correlated with poorer mental health and a lower probability of seeking psychological help.
The excellent news is that gender stereotypes gradually shift, but the process is slow. For example, studies show that younger people in Malaysia no longer emphasise physical strength as a sign of masculinity. Instead, emotional intelligence has become a coveted trait.
Mental health issues have also become less taboo, with more people finding the courage to open up about their struggles. It does help that famous male celebrities have used their platforms to speak about their mental health to encourage others to be more open about their battles. Traditionally masculine men like Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and Michael Phelps have shared their experiences with depression, while actors Chris Evans and Ryan Reynolds have opened up about dealing with anxiety. Even Prince Harry has spoken about his struggle with his mental health after his mother’s passing.
End men's mental health stigma
While all this is a step in the right direction, more initiative must be taken from the ground up. Everyone must play their part in breaking the stigma around men’s mental health, from workplaces to households.
In the workplace
Male employers are encouraged to open up about their struggles with mental health and be honest about their fears and concerns. When employers allow themselves to be vulnerable with their team, it sends a powerful message: that employees are not alone in experiencing moments of weakness or hardship and that being open about struggles is not a sign of weakness but a sign of strength.
It takes great courage to admit shortcomings and relies on others in need.
Parents must take great care in the way that their children, particularly boys, from the language they use to the examples that they set.
Parents should avoid forcing boys to conform to a narrow definition of what a man should be and allow them to experience and express the full extent of their emotions without accusations of being “too emotional” or “too sensitive”. By teaching boys that it is OK to seek out others for advice and talk about their feelings when things get tough, it is more likely that they’ll do the same later on, even in adulthood.
“ No Man Is An Island Entire Of Itself; ”
- John Donne
In the spirit of November and its significance in raising awareness of men’s health, we at Naluri encourage you to check in on the men in your life. Lend them your understanding and compassion; do not feel discouraged if they seem unwilling to open up. The last thing you should do is force them to open up before they’re ready. Make it known that you are there for support and comfort, and be patient. These things take time, after all.
This article is brought to you by Naluri Mental Health Coaches. Naluri empowers you to develop healthy lifestyle habits, achieve meaningful health outcomes, and be healthier and happier through personalised coaching, structured programmes, self-guided lessons, and health tools and devices. Download the Naluri App today or contact email@example.com for more information on utilising digital health coaching and therapy to become a happier, healthier you.