The societal perception of mental illness as a sign of weakness or personal failure often leads to the dismissal of its outward effects. This stereotype is particularly challenging for men to overcome, as they are frequently told to “man up,” a phrase that simplifies and stigmatizes their struggles.
Men are faced with a significant mental health crisis, with suicide rates nearly four times higher than those of women, especially among middle-aged white men. This alarming trend reflects the prevalence of depression, anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and suicidal thoughts among men.
In the U.S. the National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 6 million men battle depression, the actual number may be much higher. Men are less likely than women to seek help or treatment, making it difficult to accurately assess the true extent of mental health issues in America. Additionally, the symptoms of depression in men, often characterized by anger and aggression, may differ from those in women, leading to misdiagnosis or oversight by medical professionals.
There are four common barriers that men encounter when seeking mental health support, as identified by studies from scientific and medical journals:
- Defining and expressing mental health challenges: Men and women experience mental health disorders differently, with women more likely to exhibit internalized symptoms like depression and anxiety, and men more likely to display externalized symptoms such as aggression, substance abuse, and addiction. This divergence in symptoms often leads to unrecognized or discounted behaviors as signs of mental illness.
- Self-medication before seeking help: Men are more likely than women to misuse illicit drugs, leading to higher rates of emergency room care and overdose deaths. They often turn to self-medication, particularly with alcohol and drugs, to cope with mental health issues, such as PTSD, which predominantly affects men. Black men face disproportionate drug overdose death rates due to systemic barriers and higher levels of stress and psychological distress.
- Traditional masculinity discourages mental health support: Societal expectations of traditional masculinity, associated with aggression, stoicism, and refusal to complain, create barriers to seeking treatment for mental health issues. Men who strongly adhere to these stereotypes are less likely to seek preventive care and hold negative attitudes about mental health services. In Black communities, the pressure to endure prolonged stress and discrimination, known as “John Henryism,” contributes to depression and high blood pressure.
- Unique presentation of depression symptoms in men: Besides anger and aggression, common symptoms of mental health disorders in men may include fatigue, irritability, social withdrawal or anxiety, loss of interest in work or hobbies, and sleep disturbances. Men often struggle with expressing their emotions, termed “normative male alexithymia,” which can contribute to depression and hinder treatment.