The Masculine Mask
Has Our Culture Forced an Emotional Lockdown on Men?
In the last weeks, I have watched a celebrity trial with the rest of the country as it unfolds in all of its distorted glory. Actors Johnny Depp and Amber Heard go toe-to-toe, exposing drama that satiates a “juicy gossip” appetite that many of us possess. We, spectators, grow angry, shocked, amused, and opinionated in turn, as if on a Ferris Wheel.
I understand that the trial highlights spousal maltreatment, which is an important topic to have under the microscope. However, my mind will not readily let go of a more subtle mention in the story. Mr. Depp speaking about the torment he suffered at the hands of his mother profoundly gripped me. I wrap my mind around all that I know about trauma stored in the body. I find a connection, albeit much smaller, to re-living a past threat, and my heart shatters at the depth of what I know this experience entails. It can’t easily be described in words.
I can’t stop wondering what resources, if any, Mr. Depp had access to in earlier years to help him work past the abuse he suffered in his youth. I question whether small differences in walking past his childhood, would have improved his relational vision later on. Like a ripple, could help in healing have kept him from more heartache?
These questions double down on an idea that hangs in the back of my mind, day after day. In the field of health and wellness, I am blessed to be in a position of advocacy for women’s physical health. I spend a lot of time focusing on this. But something that strikes me in the face often is the same issue in the realm of mental health for men. We are seeing an alarming trend that manifests in continued silence.
From an early age, we teach our men to be tough. Stop crying. Be a man. Don’t be a baby. We teach them, essentially, emotional repression. We place a host of behaviors under the “aggression” umbrella, without questioning what might be underneath. Then, we admonish the aggression itself.
It is true that the individual is ultimately responsible for their own mental health. But I would argue that there is a much heavier and longer-standing stigma around the concept of psychological self-care for men. It seems to fly in the face of what we have decided brings value to manhood. This is to the detriment of a growing number of men and women alike. Psychological resilience, and the lack thereof, is a human reality—not an excuse to marginalize.
We have shown men their entire lives that there is no merit to being vulnerable or even transparent. That a mask is the most suitable substitution for feeling. A collective resolution has evolved that broader shoulders must mean more capacity to carry trauma. We have encouraged emotional lockdown, and why? Because we fear what we do not know. And so, the cycle continues.
Now, statistics about the gender bias in fatal effects of mental health are staggering.
Oftentimes our fellow companions suffer in secret silence, doing what “makes them a man.” Out of sight, out of mind…for those on the outside at least. But just because we don’t see something doesn’t mean it isn’t there. And in this case, it is visible – is it our eyes that remain closed, or our hearts?
We love to complain about complications within a category but refuse to try to cultivate a solution. Nobody is exempt from playing a role in a systemic issue. And sometimes, the most effective cures come in the smallest packages.
So what can we do? We can begin to change the conversation.
What if we opened up discussions about mental health in spaces where men felt safe? What if we began to invite them to share, in small ways, how they are feeling?
Let’s begin to expand ourselves, to think through how this would look. We should be asking ourselves how to take down walls. How to invite more openness from our male counterparts. We can be more aware of conversations that shut down transparency or encourage a false pretense.
We should hold space for and honor the emotions of all of our children and adolescents, not just some. What if we stopped making mental self-care into insults such as, “you need therapy” and “what a mental case.”
Renormalization happens one person, one moment, one sentence at a time. And it doesn’t take much effort at all. Anyone can begin to de-stigmatize something with a little bit of knowledge, an open heart, and understanding. Let’s stop withholding compassion and support as if they are in short supply. Toxicity grows in repression and can’t thrive in an oxygen-rich environment. This is true for every living thing. Let’s begin to cultivate an environment that nourishes and preserves in every capacity.
It starts with a conversation.