Written by Jacob Hood
The first step to combating my depression was not seeking help, but remembering that I was a boy. Boy– supposedly synonymous with stoic, emotionless robot who drips testosterone and scoffs at the very notion of weakness. Dictionaries had their definition, society had another. And mental illness did not fit into that puzzle of societal expectations.
My upbringing in a southern home was naturally engulfed in hypermasculine ideals: the walls of my room remained a creamy beige instead of the sky blue I longed after, the only toys I ever saw (and never cared for) were flame-adorned cars and fake guns, and the phrase, “like a girl” proved a knife-twisting jab in the gut. These fragile, misogynistic breadcrumbs I collected with each year led me to a state of false security in my rapidly crumbling house of expectations. Men were not to show emotion. Men were not to cry. Men were not to feel anything other than strength, lust, and dominance. So when I found myself in a state of depression, emptiness, and weakness, I bit my cries into a pillow behind a locked door. When that state persisted, when the suicidal thoughts crept in, and when pain held my body as I stood over a bathroom sink quickly growing red, I had to remind myself to swallow my screams. After all, men were too strong for mental illness.
Thankfully, I recovered, and abandoned those toxic gender stereotypes that for so long dominated my life and choked any anguished cries for help. But many are not as lucky. Emotional vulnerability in men continues to be ridiculed and discouraged, rendering the probability that mentally ill men will feel comfortable seeking help utterly nonexistent. From birth, stability of the mind – lack of perceived “feminine” emotion – is grinded into the impressionable minds of boys, expelling any hope of emotional comfortability. We instill within boys an instinct to deny pain in the face of agony, leading to illnesses such as depression going unreported and consequently untreated. Even in instances of reported illness, men are likely to be treated to a chorus of, “man up” and general belittlement of any pain. We create an environment of hostility toward emotional men, an environment ripe with the potential ingredients for mental illness.
For those identifying as women, gender stereotypes also color the manner in which mental disorders are viewed and addressed. Society has, throughout the ages, illustrated the woman as the emotional polar opposite to the man – sensitive, overly-emotional, and in the case of mental illness, likely to be swept under the collective rug of discrimination. While the general population remains more readily willing to recognize a mental health issue in women, oftentimes such behavioral signs can be dismissed as characteristic of the “overly-dramatic” woman. For historical evidence of this, we can explore the etymology of the word “hysteria,” a condition thought to be particular to women in pre-nineteenth century Europe. The Greek root “hystera” translates to uterus, thought to hold the cause of distress. Such misogyny holds firm in mindsets today.
Permeating history is the notion that women are overly-sensitive, fragile beings, mental illness viewed as either natural or an exaggeration of “natural feelings.” Gender identity, it seems, determines the legitimacy of mental disorders. The pain felt, however, tells a different story.
Gender roles constitute the fabric from which our society was woven, influencing the manner in which we behave, interact, and raise new generations. Just as we outfit genders with colors of pink and blue, so do we view mental illness through an identical, problematic scope. The gender we identify with – or don’t identify with – does not determine the validity of our suffering. Our feelings cannot be discredited by our identity. Pain is real, no matter the gender, no matter the severity, no matter the individual. We must work to abolish these gender roles that seek to dictate our existence, not only to shatter stigmas surrounding mental illness, but for the betterment of society as a whole.
Our voices cannot be silenced by the muffling hand of gender roles. The stereotypes thrown at us cannot destroy our resilience. We each determine the outcome of our existence – an existence too beautiful to lose.