“Oh, come on! Be a man!” my fourth-grade classmates said to me as I hesitated to jump off the high-dive at the pool. “Do it already. Jump!” And I did—every time.
As far as I can remember, if I was ever nervous, sad, or afraid, I told myself to “man up.” Heck, Nike has been pressuring young athletes for years with a similar phrase: “Just do it.”
For me, this pointlessly gendered motivational talk seemed to work. I could always dig deep, physically conquer my fears, and succeed at the task at hand. In my mid-20s, I thought I was winning at life. But man, was I wrong.
It was in the summer of 2017 that my life turned upside down. My dad died at the age of 67, alone in his home. There was no warning, no phone call, no final goodbye. I was absolutely devastated. If you have lost a parent, I am sure you understand the feeling. I felt confused, lost, angry, remorseful, guilty, sad, and everything in between. But at the time I couldn’t even name these emotions, let alone process them.
So, like I was taught to do from an early age, I buried them deep down inside and “manned up”.
All was fine for a while, but I started to experience a dramatic shift in my mood. One day I would feel absolutely depressed–sometimes physically unable to get out of bed. The next, I was clamoring with excitement about a potential business venture.
When “Manning Up” Isn’t Enough
I was up and down, then even further up and ever further down. My vicious mood rollercoaster had no predictability. At the time I didn’t realize it, but these frequent swings were a tell-tale sign of my declining mental health. I just kept telling myself to “Be a man” and push through it like I always had, yet every time I did, my situation would get worse. My lows kept getting longer and longer, and my highs – hell – my highs were like 6-hours of euphoria, followed by a rapid, steep crash.
But, despite my clearly worsening condition, I never felt comfortable talking about it. I hid my issues from my wife, my family, and my friends. I felt that by exposing my vulnerability, they would think less of me.
As a man, I felt that revealing the truth about my negative self-image would make the important people in my life see me in a lesser light. If I appeared weak just once, I believed that they would forever view me as weak. My thoughts were continually racing, spiraling me into a dark abyss. Each thought more negative than the last.
But “Be a man” still echoed through my brain. It was so deeply ingrained in my psyche that it was an insult to my ego to think otherwise. I was clearly on a self-destructive path, and despite having plenty of loved ones who cared for me, I had never felt so alone.
The True Stigma Behind Men’s Mental Health
My supposed masculinity, coupled with the male societal expectation of appearing strong and dependable, was so deeply entwined with my sense of self that I felt there was no way to escape it. Unaware of how to process and nurture my emotions, I let them control me like a marionette.
It’s for similar reasons that 30.6% of males experience depression in their lives. It’s why, according to Psychology of Men, “Men with higher levels of traditional masculine ideology tend to have a more negative opinion of seeking psychological help.”
The feeling of having “no way out” is why men commit suicide at a rate four times greater than women. The societal and personal expectations of “being a man” is the stigma behind men’s mental health. (Learn more here about suicide awareness and prevention)
How to Overcome the Stigma
Mental health disorders often stem from a crisis of self and lack of emotional regulation. Addicts may drink because they can’t deal with their emotions. Anxiety sufferers may feel worried because they’re uncertain of how they will handle their future emotions during an upcoming event. Those afflicted with depression tend to trade highly-unwanted emotions for feeling absolutely nothing at all.
To rewire your emotional pathway is no easy task. It takes commitment, attitude, and perseverance. But it’s not as difficult as you may think.
When I was at my lowest of the lows during my depressive episodes, I found some comfort in two things: writing and meditation. For those that knew me growing up, they would be shocked to learn that I enjoyed either. Heck, I even failed a semester of English in high school and have been diagnosed with ADHD. But, clearing my head through meditation and expressing my thoughts on paper allowed me to separate from them. It gave them less control over me. I was focusing on the present, not the what-ifs or what-could-have-beens, but the now.
Then, one of my best friends – Dan- introduced me to gratitude and mindfulness journaling. Every day, I was supposed to write what I was thankful for. It’s sort of like when you go around the Thanksgiving table, except with less overtly racist comments from my uncle.
At the time, I didn’t know it, but this is what mindfulness and gratitude are all about. It’s accepting your emotions, living in reality, and appreciating life for what it’s worth. It’s not just pseudoscience.
How Gratitude Journaling Can Improve Men’s Mental Health
Studies at Berkeley have found that adults who were instructed to write gratitude letters experienced better mental health after four weeks than the control group. A 2003 study noted that gratitude has a significant positive effect on social relationships, physical fitness, and overall well-being. Even a Harvard study used medical imaging to show that mindfulness can alter brain functionality in depressed individuals.
While practicing these techniques and achieving a more steady mood, I was still struggling with my masculinity. I always peered around before opening my bag to grab my pink, flower-clad journal. It was kind of embarrassing, but it was the only one that was available!
Dan and I thought: “What if there was a way to introduce mindfulness and gratitude for men by playing into masculinity, rather than fighting against it.” Thus, the Bro Journal was born.
We spent months crafting unique activities, bro advice, and gratitude prompts to create a journal suited for men. We focused on how gratitude and mindfulness are powerful tools in any man’s emotional arsenal. Every day tackles a new aspect of life, from mindfulness, courage, money, style, and others. The variety allows for personal growth, and each section is aimed to make you a better man.
By intertwining masculinity into gratitude and mindfulness, we aim to redefine what it means to “be a man.” We want to see a world of vulnerable men, able to freely express their struggles with others without the doubt of persecution. The Bro Journal offers baby steps, but steps in the right direction nonetheless.
Moving Forward as Men
On a societal level, the stigma behind men’s mental health may slowly change as we teach the next generations of boys to become more vulnerable and accept their feelings. As for now, men need to take a more personal approach by practicing gratitude, being mindful, or simply saying, “Thanks, bro.”
If you are struggling with depression, anxiety, addiction, or any other mental disorder, do not hesitate to reach out to those you love, or to the resources available to you online or on the phone. Sometimes, you may just need a non-judgmental voice to listen to your struggles. Below, I have compiled a list of men’s mental health resources. Remember, it is never too late to ask for help.