It is not a made up illness by the sad and pathetic looking for attention from a society that could not care to shelter it let alone recognise its existence. It cannot be willed away any more than a malignant tumour. Sufferers cannot choose happiness or cheer up (they’ve tried). Mental illness is not choice-based. There is no person who would willingly choose to submit their mind to myriad forms of torture.
Mental illness and mental disorders is a debilitating phenomenon that affects approximately 16.5% of South Africans (that we know of), and yet society emphatically denies its existence and the severe impact it has on those who have it, as well as those indirectly affected by it. An unwillingness to effectively engage with mental illness results in a silencing and shaming of those who suffer.
There is an unfortunate stench attached to mental illness that permeates different contexts of South African society, and that carries with it harmful myths. Some cultural and religious institutions perceive it as demonic possession cured through prayer and exorcism, while other sectors of society understand mental disorders as ‘white people problems’, ‘a millennial fad’, and ‘PC-policing’.
Cross-cutting the afore, mental health issues are largely understood as women’s issues. Most slurs directed at women includes hints of the feminine, and is generally flung at women acting or speaking in ways deemed inappropriate. ‘Bitches be crazy’, ‘Psychotic bitch’ and ‘Drama Queen’ are well-known insults used to gaslight women and femmes into doubting themselves and repressing their emotions. A woman’s emotions are relegated to hysteria, and her expression thereof seen as evidence of her weaker nature.
It is a sad fact of contemporary society: stereotypical masculine traits are glorified and encouraged, while stereotypically feminine traits are shamed and suppressed. This is an outlet of toxic masculinity; vulnerability is equated with weakness and the feminine.
Efforts have been made to challenge archaic gender norms and beliefs, but there remains a constant pressure on men to be strong, independent, brave, and competitive – traits that are not inherently bad, but can result in mental health challenges when not expressed/practiced constructively.
Societal constructs that dictate men should be tough and fearless allow no room for these men to express other emotions or facets of themselves which go against accepted gender norms. This makes it more challenging for men to acknowledge any mental health challenges that may be triggered in their lifetime. Mental health in men continues to be a taboo subject, with many men suffering in silence, or engaging in destructive behaviour.
A recent US-based study revealed that traditional masculine traits are strongly linked with mental health issues, such as depression and substance abuse. The study concluded that men who conformed strongly to masculine norms tended to have poorer mental health and less favourable attitudes towards seeking help. Men are not biologically wired to seek less help; they are taught to seek less help.
Unfortunately, the results find resonance in the South African context. While there is little, and sometimes contradictory, data around mental health in South Africa, it is undeniable that mental illness is a concerning phenomenon that affects all our lives. According to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), there are 4.6 male suicides for every female suicide, and the means employed are usually violent, taking form in hanging and the use of firearms. Of those who commit suicide, approximately 70% suffered from a mental disorder. The result is a desperate need to shatter the silence around mental health and mainstream it within our day-to-day conversations.
By stigmatising and invalidating men who suffer from a mental illness – who show any form of vulnerability – society unwittingly blocks any opportunity for help. A refusal to engage with the impact of mental illness on men is dangerous; what starts off as mild depression or mild anxiety, or a traumatic life stressor that needs support, can easily and quickly escalate to substance abuse, alcoholism, sex addictions, extreme melancholy, and in the worse cases, suicide.
There are limited safe spaces that allow for vulnerability, and that provide the necessary support to aid and assist those who have mental illnesses. Of these limited spaces, the cis-heteronormative man, in particular, is discouraged from entering and seeking help, since in so doing, he confesses weakness, and risks compromising his right to manhood. This is the violent effect patriarchy has on those it privileges: it prevents them from realising and expressing their humanity in all its fullness and complexities.
So, what happens when a man finds himself battling with mental illness, regardless of whether he understands and interprets it as such? How does he express or explain to his loved ones and his colleagues that he cannot cope anymore?
The answers do not come easy as it requires all of us to not only change how and what we think about mental health, but specifically how and what we expect from men who are struggling. Deep and difficult conversation is required. Deep interrogation of ourselves, our families, and our communities in how we respond to mental wellness and self-care is needed. We need to make it acceptable for boys and men to ask for help. We need to make it okay – and safe – for boys to cry.
WATCH: Dr. Oz On Why Men Are Embarrassed To Talk About Mental Health Issues | TODAY
Danielle Hoffmeester is the Project Assistant for the Gender Justice and Reconciliation Project at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.
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