I dealt with the most stereotypically feminine of mental illnesses in the most stereotypically masculine way. After acknowledging that I was anorexic, and deciding that I had no wish to be, I put my head down and tried to recover with the minimum of fuss. I told almost nobody about my condition, and almost never discussed it with the people I had told. I had two sessions with a therapist—almost missing the first after getting myself lost and terrifying pedestrians by running up to them, wild-eyed, to ask for directions to the mental health center—and then abandoned them out of embarrassment and reticence. I did not want to talk, and I did not cry, and I had no wish to hold anyone’s hand or be hugged.
As a means of recovery, I would not recommend this. I was fortunate enough to have a family who supported me as I recovered, and someone less privileged would need additional support. Had I been more open to professional help, meanwhile, I might have made a quicker and more comprehensive recovery, and if someone feels as if it might be good for them I have no reservations about advising people to seek it.
Yet that was not who I was. Recovering on my own was not a path I took because of stigma, or prejudice, or any conscious urge towards being masculine. I had spent my teenage years admiring Richey Edwards, Emo Philips and Oscar Wilde. The last thing I had sought to be was macho. The embarrassment that came from discussing my emotions was a deeply rooted aspect of my personality, and to some extent, it has endured. I write, in large part, because it has always been a more attractive means of conveying my thoughts and feelings than speech.
Male stoicism has been characterized as an enabler of mental illness and a contributor to suicide. Endless articles and innumerable campaigns have been devoted to helping men cry, ending the phrase “man up” and, above all, getting men to talk. This is valuable, at least in theory. Men commit suicide at higher rates than women but are less likely to talk to anyone if they endure stress, depression or loneliness. Many of them feel this would be somehow pathetic. This is a problem, and it deserves refutation. No one should feel weak for admitting to being in pain, and if that sounds platitudinous I would add that other coping strategies like drugs, alcohol and suicide will end up causing far worse problems than this admission.
Yet I feel that certain points have been avoided. One is that the gender gap in suicide is complex. Women attempt to commit suicide more than men but the male preference for more violent means of doing so, like firearms and hanging, has meant that more of them succeed. Men are likelier to be autistic and autistic people, tragically, have a higher risk of suicide.
We should also bear in mind, solving problems that exacerbate stress, depression and loneliness is a more difficult, less marketable and yet more essential task than dealing with problems when they arise. Problem debt, family breakdown, inequitable family courts, loose drug regulations and a decline in cultural capital all contribute to mental problems and suicide and there is no point in treating the outcomes without addressing the causes. Of course, we can do both. But we must do both.
Beyond this, I worry that the admirable work of addressing the shame men feel when they talk or cry, or seek professional help might lead to shaming men who have no wish to talk or cry or seek professional help. Our culture is biased towards the assumption that our attitudes are the products of our environments, and that character traits we have deemed harmful have been implanted into us by harmful influences. In the past, it was often assumed that any weakness on the part of men was an unnatural betrayal of our real selves. In our time, I fear that we risk doing the opposite. You don’t want to cry? What is wrong with you?
There can, as I have written, be a hint of opportunism in modern writing on male mental health. Male reticence, for some, is just another aspect of “toxic masculinity,” along with aggression, sexual predation, competitiveness, irreverent jocularity and anything else that strikes progressives as especially obnoxious. I would be the last person to suggest that some harmful instincts are not disproportionately present among men. Were this not true, our prison demographics would be very different. Still, I think that some progressives package harmful traits along with healthier traits and then pathologize the lot.
“Can we wean boys off machismo and misogyny?” wrote the author Tim Winton. “Will they ever relinquish the race, the game, the fight, and join the dance?” What is inherently wrong with racing, or gaming, or even fighting in controlled, consensual situations? Competitive and even aggressive instincts can be useful and satisfying if channelled properly.
A thousand “How The Patriarchy Harms Men and Boys, Too” articles have blossomed across the internet. There is no subtlety here. “From birth,” claims one article in Bustle, “Men are discouraged from showing emotion.” As if there are moms and dads who try to silence their baby boys as they scream in the maternity wards.
Mental health is more complex than “repression” versus “expression.” First, there are differences in how we experience feelings. Depressive rumination is more common among women than among men which can make them more vulnerable to stress and depression. I would not recommend “Stop Thinking About It” as a mental health campaign slogan but it complicates the picture. Rational coping as well as emotional suppression is more common among men than among women and can be a productive response to the struggles of life. Psychological needs vary depending on the person and the situation—certainly not just between the sexes—and there is no single, simple model of how one should cope with hardship and pain. We can all agree that no one should feel shame for talking, crying or seeking professional help, but we should not pathologize aversion to doing so under unwieldy banners like “toxic masculinity.”
Stoicism is a good thing that, like all good things, becomes damaging in excess. Even in the relatively comfortable West our lives are hard. We have bills to pay, and jobs to keep, relationships to maintain, and children to raise. Many people live with illness, grief, or the pain of separation or dreams gone to ruin. Some people are just sad in a deep, persistent way. At times we have to grit our teeth amid stress and suffering or else our lives will fall apart and damage those we love. Some people have more responsibility to bear than others and must endure with balled fists while biting their tongues. We must help people find the means to express themselves and encourage them to appreciate that mental problems demand attention just as surely as physical problems demand care. Yet we must seek a balance in doing so; an unstable and imperfect balance, yes, but only as unstable and imperfect as human beings, who might know what mental illness is but will never reach a state of unblemished mental health.