For most of my life, I thought I had everything figured out.
I had a fulfiling upbringing, a caring family and an encouraging school environment. I excelled at extracurricular activities and led a decent social life. I never asked for help because I never felt that I needed it.
It never occurred to me while growing up that there might be times when I would not feel okay. Mental health was not a part of the conversation when I was younger. Nobody said to me that when you don't feel okay, there are facilities and resources available that would make you feel better, think clearly and bolster your mental health.
During my junior year of university, I took the advice of a dear friend and visited a cognitive behavioural therapist. What I thought were pre-exam jitters, I now know were panic attacks.
Learning more about my mental health conditions back then came as an enormous shock. So much so that I didn’t visit my therapist again for another two years. Despite my continued advocacy for mental health awareness, for 27 months I was trying to convince myself that I was okay and that university stress was a shared experience. I told myself that my sadness – however prolonged and painful – was a regular human emotion.
I resumed cognitive behavioural therapy only this year when my personal turmoil reached a peak and none of my attempts to console myself convinced me that everything was okay. It was only after attending regular, scheduled sessions and engaging with my therapy homework that I grew more confident that everything was, indeed, okay.
People react differently to therapy. In my case, I noticed greater clarity in my thoughts, increased self-awareness and a renewed passion for life – things that were not there earlier.
It took me a while (and lots of overthinking) to pursue therapy, and I think part of this is attributable to society having long socialised boys and men not to feel. This was a big reason holding me back from seeking help.
A lot of men have a tough time because it can feel like our more intimate thoughts and emotions are rarely validated – neither by ourselves nor others. We are all the result of generations upon generations of gender-role socialisation, when people are taught how to behave on the basis of their gender from an early age. There are cues one picks up from the social norms around them and the values embedded in their culture. I am not pointing fingers, but this is a fact that we must acknowledge to move forward in having more open discussions about mental health.
According to research on the effects of gender socialisation on depression among men, the more men conform to norms of masculinity, the higher the likelihood that their distress manifests in "masculine" ways – like violence. Research also finds that gender socialisation is a reason that many men do not disclose their emotions to their physicians. This only further hinders productive conversations around men's mental health, a topic that already doesn't get its due.
All of this is especially alarming when you consider the prevalence of suicide across the globe. The World Health Organisation reports that in high-income countries, death by suicide kills three times more men than women. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among men aged 15-29 (after road injury and interpersonal violence) but too few countries have developed national suicide prevention strategies.
As we strive to improve the mental health landscape through policy, activism and citizen engagement, we need to include more men – particularly young men – in this conversation. Efforts must start from our individual circles of influence, through which we can inspire social change.
We must begin by erasing the notion that strength is achieved by eliminating vulnerability from our lives. We must correct the mistaken ideas that men don't cry, that emotional expression is a woman's prerogative and that bottling things up gives men a thick skin. We have to join forces to re-learn what strength truly means. Strength comes from accepting and acknowledging our deepest vulnerabilities, and developing healthy coping mechanisms and modes of emotional expression.
Over the past year, I have found simple gestures to be beneficial to my mental health. Something as routine as friends "holding space" for me has gone a long way in making me feel better. It always lifts the spirits when people close to you show concern and care enough to enquire about your well-being and ask how something makes you feel. Little ways of reaching out have encouraged me to process my thoughts in a healthy way, rather than carrying subconscious burdens. Unscheduled check-ins from friends and family, particularly during times when I would have heightened emotions – during midterms season, or unfortunate personal circumstance – reinforces the value of a support system, which researchers’ consider an integral part of healing from emotional trauma.
At an institutional level, policymakers and activists should collaborate in tailoring initiatives that promote men’s unique mental health needs in an inclusive way. As a society, we must do more to spread awareness of mental health, instil self-awareness and better understand the mental health needs of people across social groups.
Mental healthcare providers should design specific outreach programmes that cater to men, whether through workshops that teach healthy coping mechanisms or by addressing the challenges that make it so difficult for most men to express inner turmoil. This is more pertinent now than ever, given the devastating affect that the coronavirus pandemic has had on our lives.
World Mental Health Day this year is an opportunity to talk about the trauma that many of us have experienced in different ways because of the pandemic and the lockdown. Ideally, this will broaden the conversation around mental health.
In fact, of late, I have noticed a shift in attitudes towards how men feel. Whether in conversations with my friends, or through interviewing respondents for my fellowship with the Carter Centre, I have noticed that men, at least in my own surroundings, have begun to talk about their emotions.
Looking to 2021, I can only dream that the mental health landscape for men will improve both on the social front and within policies. Until then and even after, empathy, compassion and understanding can go a long way for all of us – not just fathers, sons, brothers and men in general – to lead mentally healthier lives.
Omar Al Owais is a Rosalynn Carter Fellow for Mental Health Journalism in the UAE