By Jill Becker
With June being Men’s Health Month, it seems an appropriate time to address the gender gap between males and females when it comes to mental health and men’s general reluctance to express their emotions and ask for help with issues such as depression and anxiety. “It starts in childhood,” explains Matthew Quick, the director of North Atlanta Psychotherapy and a licensed professional counselor with more than 15 years of experience treating men battling everything from work stress to midlife crises. “Most men were taught as boys not to show or express things like fear, sadness and disappointment. These are things [you’re told] you either shouldn’t feel or just dismiss and keep moving.”
Lorenzo P. Lewis seconds that notion. The founder and CEO of The Confess Project, an organization devoted to “building a culture of mental health for boys, men of color and their families,” Lewis echoes the fact that young men are often told to keep their problems to themselves. He adds that this naturally “leads to mental health issues in adulthood, which also creates a generational problem for many men and their families.”
An Illness, Not a Weakness
According to the national nonprofit Mental Health America, more than six million men are affected by depression each year. Male depression often goes undiagnosed, though, so the actual number is likely even higher. And that’s not counting the men suffering from anxiety, PTSD, bipolar disorder or other mental health issues.
Men often fail to realize that mental illness is a medical condition, not a failing or defect. “Men are notorious for underreporting emotional difficulties and seeing a therapist,” says Quick. “For many of them, asking for help is seen as a weakness, so, unfortunately, many guys struggle in silence, get angry or turn to addiction instead.”
This is particularly true for men of color, says Lewis. “Black men are culturally influenced to not care about their mental health as much as others,” he explains. “Due to racism and imagery through media, as well as complexities of identity, this causes Black men a lot of uncertainty and high levels of stress.”
Fear of the Unknown
Another reason men may be hesitant to seek help from a trained professional is that they have no idea what that might look or feel like. They might have outdated visions of having to stretch out on an uncomfortable sofa in a dark, stuffy psychiatrist’s office with a somber figure dressed in tweed quizzing them about why they hate their mother. “It’s not like in the movies or on TV,” insists Quick. “He doesn’t have to lay on a couch, I’m not going to blame his parents, and he doesn’t have to cry.”
Because of the pandemic, some therapists are doing virtual appointments these days, which may make sessions easier for some men. They may also want to look into the growing number of online mental health services. BetterHelp, for example, is one such service that lets you text chat with an accredited therapist from the comfort of your living room through either a browser on your computer or a smartphone, similar to that of instant messaging on Facebook or Google.
Just as they do when it comes to picking a general practitioner, some men may feel more comfortable choosing a male therapist rather than a female one. “I think for deeply personal issues related to shame, embarrassment and vulnerability, both men and women generally seek the same gender. Not surprisingly, men might not want to talk with a female therapist about sexual dysfunction, performance anxiety in the bedroom or sexual inadequacy,” says Quick. “Conversely, someone in a heterosexual relationship may seek out a therapist of the opposite sex to try and understand their partner better. The most important aspect of psychotherapy is the therapeutic relationship defined by unconditional positive regard for the client, a nonjudgmental posture and empathy. As long as a man experiences that, then gender may not matter at all.”
How and Where to Get Help
Of course, a trip to the barbershop or the therapist’s office isn’t the only way to combat any emotional issues men may be dealing with. Support groups are a great resource, whether it’s a general processing group or one with a more specific focus, such as divorce or adult children of alcoholics.
One such Atlanta men’s therapy group, led by Drs. Steve Fogleman and Andy Smith, meets virtually once a week to explore issues such as relationships, anger, grief, loneliness, anxiety and depression. “A men’s therapy group can act as a safe ‘practice zone’ in which men get to feel what it’s like to connect with one another beyond the confines of, say, watching football or playing video games,” says Fogleman. “Once men have the opportunity to see other men share and to hear their stories, a powerful and immediate thing happens: They realize that they’re not alone in their experiences. Those who participate often speak of it as one of their most powerful experiences.”
Places of worship are a good potential source of refuge for those with a spiritual background, says Quick. Yoga and meditation are other tools men can add to their mental health toolbox. They don’t even need to leave the privacy of their own homes to participate, as countless videos are available to stream on sites such as Amazon Prime and YouTube, as well as through apps such as Pocket Yoga and Headspace.
No matter what methods they use, though, more men must learn to recognize when they’re suffering from mental as well as physical pain and seek help for their psychological issues just like they would a bad tooth or a broken arm. “I believe the wide margin between men who are suffering and men who seek help is closing with each successive generation,” says Quick. “For example, today we have organizations like Mission 22, which brings awareness to PTSD and suicide in a profound way that resonates with men. They see organizations like this and think, ‘These guys went through some pretty bad stuff, and their emotions got to be overwhelming.’ Now all of these men are saying it’s OK to talk about emotional pain.”
Turning a Negative Into a Positive
Lorenzo P. Lewis knows whereof he speaks. He has been able to fearlessly reflect on his emotional issues over the years and channel them into a passion project that won him an Oprah Health Hero award in 2020 from O Magazine. Labeled “America’s first mental health barbershop movement,” his organization, The Confess Project, trains barbers across the country to become mental health advocates and encourage their customers to talk openly and honestly about their true feelings and concerns. “Black men are more comfortable sharing their feelings with their barbers because the barbershop has been a staple in their lives for many years. It’s a place they can go to become their best selves in an environment that’s nonjudgmental and where they can feel seen, heard and validated by other men like them.” As of January, 25 Atlanta barbers had been through the program, with another 175 scheduled to be trained by the end of the year.
What Women Can Do
Ladies, do you have a male spouse, friend or family member you suspect is having emotional difficulties? Given men’s usual resistance to expressing their innermost thoughts, you may feel intimidated about addressing it with them. There’s an equally good chance you may not even recognize they’re struggling emotionally because mental health issues often present themselves in men as something totally different. So, how can you pinpoint the signs, and how can you help? Atlanta psychotherapist Matthew Quick has some answers.
How does someone recognize signs of emotional issues in their male partner?
Men can show all of the signs of emotional distress that women can. This includes avoidance, sadness, quietness, irritability, loss of interest, appetite issues, sleep problems and substance abuse. One symptom that men tend to display more of than women is anger. For men, anger is a socially ‘acceptable’ way of emoting. However, an angry man is typically a man who is depressed, anxious or overwhelmed.
Since it’s such a sensitive subject, what’s the best way for someone to approach their male partner if they’re concerned he’s suffering from emotional issues?
Genuine empathy. It’s important for women to recognize their emotional power with men. A woman can hurt or heal a man with just one word. Women don’t have to tell men that it’s OK to cry (he probably won’t). She just needs to start with, ‘I could see why you would be feeling this way.’
Can you name a few of the top things women can do to help their male partners address and deal with their issues?
- Reassurance – Men need to know that their partners won’t reject them or perceive them as weak.
- Validation – One of the best things women can do is avoid diminishing what he’s going through. Diminishing sounds like, ‘Suck it up.’ Validation sounds like, ‘You’re not alone.’
- Problem-solving – This is the way most men operate. Reframing ‘help’ as a solution will go a long way
Looking for more about mental health? Read about 7 things you can do for a happier healthier life here.
The Confess Project, Lorenzo P. Lewis | theconfessproject.com
Dr. Steve Fogelman | drstevefogleman.com
Mental Health America | mhascreening.org
National Alliance on Mental Illness | namiga.org
North Atlanta Psychotherapy, Matthew Quick, MDiv, LPC, NCC | northatlantapsych.com