Throughout this post-traumatic stress disorder series, we have seen massive misunderstandings about the illness and mental health in general, lack of funding for proper support and care for those suffering, and alternative methods of treatment. But no matter what angle I look at PTSD and the way it affects men, it seems to boil down to a concept that is, as far as I’m concerned, the root of many social problems: disregard of the feminine and the reluctance of men to ask for help when they need it.
When I interviewed Kent Laidlaw, 25-year police force veteran, we had a fascinating discussion about PTSD, and he came out with a bomb. He said that while he was on the force during the 1990s, the popular and accepted view of PTSD was understood to be a “man’s” disorder, while women suffered from depression.
This is of course as ridiculous as it is untrue. Anyone can have PTSD and anyone can suffer from depression. I’m not sure if there is such a thing as a gender-related mental illness, but there are certainly gender-related beliefs around mental health.
“We assign a gender to human traits like emotional intelligence, and then “feminize” the act of asking for help, stigmatizing men who express they are hurting and need support,” says Jeff Perera, Community Engagement Manager for White Ribbon Campaign.
With associations like this, is it any wonder that men are terrified to show anything remotely suggesting that they are anything less than what is expected?
Socialized masculine stereotypes dictate that men are expected to know, to be in control of any situation, and to be self-reliant. With all of that real or imagined expectation, there is little room for their true selves. Constructed gender beliefs rob men of their authenticity and their naturalness, and this is alarming to me. I think it’s clear that men aren’t women, so it seems very strange to me that men insist on fighting tooth and nail to prove to the world that they aren’t women, even if it means sacrificing their quality of life and their health.
Bullsh*t gender expectations
Logic says that when we experience physical trouble, we seek medical help. Researchers now see PTSD as brain damage and this should warrant medical attention. Between the heart and the brain, the human body cannot function, so why wouldn’t someone seek medical help for a damaged brain, and how is it different from say, a broken leg or a malignant tumour?
In Why Men Won’t Ask For Help, Peter Griffiths says that “men can fall too easily into the “willpower” trap, and ignore available help at their peril. The wards and hospitals are full of men who refuse to go to the doctor when they have physical symptoms and who seem to prefer to pay the price rather than go for help.” How many of you can come up with an example of a man putting himself at risk because of this masculine code? I know a man who waited until he peed blood before going to a doctor after an excruciatingly painful sports injury.
As a society, we’re not going to get very far if we frown upon men going for help when they need it. It’s ridiculous and I believe, abusive towards men.
Masculine emotion and why men have trouble asking for help
Socially, we look through masculine eyes and make masculine judgements about the world around us. This distorted view not only disregards the feminine but promotes anxiety and violence in men who constantly try to prove themselves as men, and not women. Humans have dual nature and the feminine, like the masculine, exists within us all, but many men insist on fighting the impossible fight against this part of themselves.
While girls are socialized to be emotional and nurturing, it’s fine when they ask for help when it’s needed. However, boys are taught that emotions aren’t becoming to their gender to the degree that they may not even be able to recognize their feelings and thus, they cannot identify or understand them, let alone express them in a healthy manner. But whether or not the emotions are understood, they still exist, and attempting to deny them and take on the world can be devastating to a man and other people in his life.
“In many men’s minds,” Griffiths says, “if a man can’t handle everything, then he must be a failure. And if that’s the case, he feels embarrassed and afraid about others, especially other men, finding out he is “not a man”.”
The “grave” admittance of vulnerability and of relinquishing control is, for some men, an uncomfortable, if not, terrifying idea. Take the innocuous act of asking for directions, for example. In Nick Collins’ Telegraph article, Men refuse to ask for directions out of “blind panic”, he says that “while women are more happy to use all available resources to help them reach a goal, men will rigidly stick to their original “system”… even though it has clearly led them astray.”
He says that when confronting the idea that their system doesn’t work, it makes men flustered and causes them to do sometimes reckless things to avoid the reality of the situation/failure. Griffiths agrees, and says that men don’t like to admit or even recognize when they feel helpless, and can feel lessened at the thought of going to someone else who is better equipped to help solve their problem.
The social negativity around PTSD and mental illness in general keeps men away from getting help, an this is can be painful, devastating, and extremely damaging. Emma Watson, during her United Nations address this fall, drew attention to this idea as she summarized social problems that stem from society’s treatment of men: “We don’t often talk about men and gender stereotypes… but I’ve seen young men suffering from mental illness, unable to ask for help for fear it would make them less of a man. In fact, in the UK, suicide is the biggest killer of men between the ages of 20 and 49… I’ve seen men made fragile and insecure by a distorted sense of what constitutes male success.”
Permission to be vulnerable
Why has the gender that gave us the Sistine Chapel brought us to the edge of cosmocide? Why have the best and the brightest exercised their intelligence, imagination, and energy and managed only to create a world where starvation and warfare are more common than they were in Neolithic times? Why has the history of what we dare to call “progress” been marked by an increase in human suffering?
-Sam Keene, Fire In the Belly
Emma Watson says “When [men are] are free, things will change for women out of natural consequence. If men don’t have to be aggressive in order to be accepted, women won’t feel compelled to be submissive. Both men and women should feel free to be sensitive…[and] strong.
“It is time when we all perceive gender as a spectrum, instead of two sets of opposing ideals. If we stop defining ourselves by what we are not, and start defining ourselves by who we are, we can all be freer… Men should have permission to be vulnerable and human, to reclaim those parts of themselves they’ve abandoned, and in doing so, be a more true and complete version of themselves.”
We must do a collective about-face around our beliefs of men and allow them to ask for help when they need it, receive it, and heal. Women are not outside of social conditioning and are just as much a part of this equation as men are. Women have to give men the space and the respect to reach out for help, support men as they strive to be better people, and allow them to be vulnerable. I for one, feel a great privilege when a man cries in front of me because this is the man at his most honest.
When we stop propagating a violent and angry culture and let go of masculine expectations, when we stop expecting men to be something they are naturally not, when we get over the idea of believing that anything feminine is weak, then change will occur. If we change our perspective about asking for help and consider it a strength and a strategy to utilize everything at our disposal to reach our goal, change will occur. We do this every day in business, so why not for ourselves?
To be concerned with what other people think is one thing, but to sacrifice our health for someone else’s sake is quite another. The traditional masculine stereotype exists simply because we let it, but the stereotype doesn’t serve anyone; it is an idea that we allow to exist in our minds, perhaps because we are afraid of change, or that we don’t have the imagination to think outside of the traditional box.
To make things different around mental illness and general life, all we have to do is simply change our minds.