Featured on GQ. Author: Benjy Hansen-Bundy
There was a simple experience I had as a boy—one most boys probably have—that does a lot to explain the trouble American men have with talking about and understanding their feelings. Somewhere along the way, another kid in my class, let's call him Timmy, made it very clear that no matter what my progressive teachers said, our playground abided by the guy code—a law so fundamental it defined not just the social hierarchy but the fabric of the universe. Timmy did all that with a simple turn of phrase after he took the ball from me: "What, you gonna cry?"
Forget that I was actually better at football than Timmy. Forget that he's now a functioning member of society. None of that matters. The message that goes right to the lizard brain and stays there, wreaking havoc in all sorts of ways, is that emotions, especially ones that might be perceived as weakness, are not welcome in public.
Is that why 75 percent of suicides are men? Or why men overdose on opioids twice as often as women do? Not directly, of course. There are other factors at play in those stats; you'd have to trace back through the maze of contradictions that we call masculinity. But it does help explain why men struggle to realize that mental health is actually something to care about. Something to be actively maintained.
Masculinity—a coarse and not particularly helpful term—doesn't exactly lend itself to introspection, discussing feelings, or even feeling those feelings. At least not traditionally. But masculinity, whatever it is, does seem to be evolving. All across the culture, men are speaking out about their own experiences struggling with mental-health problems. Kid Cudi has talked about going to therapy. Rob Delaney has blogged about depression. Ryan Reynolds opened up about anxiety. And now athletes, our paragons of ab-rippling masculinity, have started opening up too, proving that even if your body is in peak performance mode, you still have to pay attention to what's going on in your head. Kevin Love wrote about a mid-game panic attack. Michael Phelps became the face of Talkspace, an online and mobile therapy platform. Metta World Peace has been a vocal advocate for athletes and others focusing on their mental health. It makes sense. We all know the basics of keeping our bodies intact. So why is it that we have no clue about how to take care of our brains?
We wanted better answers—not just big theories but real advice from the experts on how to improve things in our heads on a daily basis. Turns out there's a lot we can do.
What we've assembled here is a first, small step: a real-talk guide for men to begin to understand their mental health. It covers the broad spectrum of experience. We asked how much anxiety is "normal" (and found an answer). We tried to understand why we're so angry—and what we can do to handle that anger in a healthy way. We learned how to avoid the winter blues from the guy who discovered seasonal affective disorder. We tried shutting up that negative voice in our heads. (Well, we made some progress on that one, anyway.)
This project, by nature, will never be complete. We didn't touch on every last issue. Not even close. The ways that humans experience suffering are seemingly infinite. But putting a name to that suffering is the first step to doing something about it. And even if you don't find yourself in this mix of advice and exploration, that fact that you're taking a small action to address where your head's at is important. That first step is a big one.
Because I've realized that no matter how well-rounded I think I might be, I'm bound by things I learned from the other boys in school and from the culture at large, things I might not even remember learning. Self-protective mechanisms designed to get me through middle school that ended up sticking around. A deep-seated armor of masculinity that's really good at defending against playground taunts but not particularly useful for an adult trying to navigate intimate relationships or work on my own mental health. There's no quick way to shed that armor. I've tried! But there are ways of dismantling it piece by piece and building a new, potentially stronger version of what it means to be "a man." One that has capabilities beyond making sure I don't cry in front of my friends.