Mental health remains a taboo subject for many in our society despite its prevalence. Mental health issues for men, in particular, are often shrouded in silence and secrecy with most men choosing to remain silent and to not open up about their mental health struggles. According to www.priorygroup.com, despite men and women experiencing mental health problemslike depression, anxiety or stress in roughly equal numbers, men are much less likely to seek help, be diagnosed and get treatment. As a result of this, the largest percentage of all suicides are by men.
So why do men find it difficult to open up and talk about their mental health? According to Kochi Rolland,a relationship coach, toxic masculinity and gendered assumptions are at the core. “Society says men are strong, in control and invulnerable; and as a result, speaking about mental health issues seems like admitting that you are vulnerable and you are not in control and ‘hakuna murume who wants to admit to that’ He added that there are only a few men who are willing to admit to their vulnerability and seek help for it.
We spoke to a few men to find out the truth behind this;
*Tafadzwa said admitting to having mental health issues would be seen as a sign of weakness. He felt he would rather maintain a facade of being strong and indomitable before acknowledging the challenges he was facing.
*Mukudzeyi said he did not know what mental health was and it’s impact on his life. So he couldn’t be expected to talk on a subject he has no knowledge of. To him, mental health challenges and self care are Western concepts that we are trying to adopt.
*Michael said he had no-one to open up to and he felt he had no safe space to share his issues with so he was better off keeping mum about the challenges he was facing in his life.
So how do we create safe spaces for men to open up and foster an environment where they feel ok to speak up and share their mental health challenges? How do we create a society in which everyone feels safe. A society in which everyone knows that if they have a challenge they can get the help they need without being ridiculed or labelled. A society where no one has to suffer in silence.
We spoke with Tinotenda Phillip Gwitima who is a mental health advocate and the founder of ‘Rupasa: A place to talk.’ According to Phillip, Rupasa is an online platform where people can share their stories and experiences around mental health and mental illness. It is a safe space that also attempts to bridge the gap between mental health practitioners and the general public by referring people who wish to get professional help.
I have struggled with anxiety for a long time and for most of my life I had no idea what was going on with me. I discovered that through journaling and sharing what I was going through I was able to release some pressure and ultimately feel a lot better. This led me to starting a blog in 2012 and the feedback I got though not much encouraged me to help others to communicate what they were going through. I started reading more into anxiety which led to the link with Mental Health and the more I discovered, the more I was drawn to the topic, and the more I was drawn to it, the more I realized that many people around me would also benefit from understanding what Mental Health is. At the time I was also working as a recruitment consultant for University bound students and that included counseling them on study options. The counseling aspect resulted in several students feeling comfortable enough to talk about other issues that were affecting them and not just the prospect of going overseas to study. I became a really good listener but I realized that a lot of these kids, like myself, needed professional help. But back then it really wasn’t easy for someone to step out and say they needed help. It also wasn’t easy to actually access the help. This led me to Rupasa: A place to talk, and to date a lot of people use the platform as a stepping stone in their healing process and also as a tool to understand what they are going through.
In my experience I have found that the “privilege” that comes with being male has proven to be a gift and a curse. We walk around with our chins up because that’s what comes with the title of being called man but that chin up mentality usually comes with the scars of trying to make sure we meet the world’s expectations. The pace of the changes taking place in the world today has not allowed humans to have time to stop and take care of themselves because we have to look a certain way, perform a certain way, speak a certain way and even walk a certain way. So I believe the main reason we struggle to open up is because for a long time the world has not accepted a man who doesn’t meet the standards on what a man should be and the moment you open up you are labeled weak or too fragile or the common statement ‘you are not much of a man.’ It’s also important to note that a lot of the times the moment you open up that vulnerability becomes ammunition used against you, so fear definitely creeps in. A lot of us would therefore rather not expose our weaknesses and yet there is so much strength in vulnerability and that is a gospel we need to preach more.
I think by sharing our stories more we open up more spaces for men to talk. We are not so different in our experiences and struggles and the realization that someone has gone through something similar takes a load off your shoulders. Sometimes all it takes is knowing that you are not alone for you to start the healing process. I always say to people that I believe the first space we need is ‘US’ because within our shared struggles there we can find peace and camaraderie. It is also necessary for us to know our limits when it comes to helping someone who is going through something so I think having a directory or contact list of mental health practitioners handy will go a long way in our efforts to get help for ourselves and for others. The same way 911 is popular overseas is the same way we should have those who can help us on speed dial.
Men have woken up to the idea of taking care of their mental health at a time when their very being is being attacked. The very systems that we have grown up under and learnt from are being dismantled and crushed while we watch and unfortunately this comes with plenty of collateral damage and in this case the collateral damage is us. Take patriarchy for example; as toxic as a lot of elements around patriarchy are, let’s not forget it’s all a lot of people know and therefore their characters are moulded around it. So when you take patriarchy down you take a lot of men down with it. I recently did a show around the question ‘Is the Traditional African Man still relevant’ and the results of a Twitter poll we ran were so close. A significant number of people would like to get rid of this man while the majority are hanging in the balance. From that show alone I discovered that a large portion of society feels that men have had their ‘unfair’ shot in the spotlight for long enough, and rather than continue to make it about them, we need to focus on dismantling patriarchy and the systems that support it, reversing roles and shifting the power dynamic.
More listening, more sharing and ultimately a hunger to talk about the important things that matter. Society needs to repackage what an important conversation is because when we meet in bars we still feel that talking about how many rounds of sex you can go through and how you can still drive and make it home when drunk is an important conversation and yet you had a panic attack just a week before but don’t feel it’s something to talk about. We also need more forums like these to educate people on what mental health and mental illness is. This information should be ‘in your face’ and I would love to see issues around mental health trending everyday.
I was asked once what legacy I would like to leave behind and I said I want to be the guy that got people to talk. This is what is happening around me and I hope in many other circles, men are talking more and are willing to be vulnerable. Rupasa continues to gain traction with a lot of people inboxing us seeking understanding and seeking help. We continue to refer as many people as we can to seek professional help and we also try to create support groups for people with shared experiences to open up and hopefully become safe spaces for one another. I also host a show called the Bro Code which ultimately serves to tackle those hard topics that we struggle to talk about and the response has been amazing from brothers all over the globe. The desire is to help people find healing when it’s all said and done. This is a process but it’s a process we will continue to instigate so that we can have many healed brothers who can encourage healing in the next generation and the generation after that.
Absolutely; but we need to understand that mental health is not just for men, women, black people or white people but it’s for all of us. Everyone has experienced mental health matters in some way and we have all had an experience with mental illness, be it through a man on the street or through a relative or through our own thoughts that we do not understand. The moment we realize we are all in this together is the moment we will all begin to share. This is starting to happen and I am so glad to be a part of it. Let’s end the stigma around mental illness and let’s become safe spaces for each other.
By: Nyaradzo Ngoma