Friday June 1, 2018

Seeing the "men" in mental illness

Despite all the advances in gender equity over the past decades, recent events have filled the media with plenty of reminders that women still suffer from glass ceilings, lack of family-friendly work policies, and the threat of sexual harassment. Less obvious is a particular form of gender inequity that comes at a high cost for men.

Macho

Men are socialized to be strong. Men don’t cry. Society says those with mental disorders are a weak so it’s better to keep troubles to ourselves, especially if you are a real man. Icons of strength and courage, male athletes are the last ones who should suffer from a mental disorder according to this playbook. But the five men who have gone public with their mental health challenges are finally rewriting the narrative.

1.

Everyone is going through something. When the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Kevin Love left the court just after halftime of an important game, no one knew it was because he had a panic attack. Like most boys, growing up he quickly learned that to “be a man” you have to be strong and you don’t talk about your feelings. That night, Love decided it was time to challenge the myth that mental illness is someone else’s problem. By sharing his experience he makes way for others follow suit.

2.

Man up against stigma. DeMar DeRozan always remembers how his mom used to tell him never to make fun of anyone because you don’t know what they’re going through. No one would have guessed that DeRozan, Toronto Raptors basketball star, was suffering when he tweeted one night, “This depression gets the best of me.” Sending his message out into the world, DeRozan reminds us that no one is invincible. Yes, there are things we can all do to promote mental health, but mental illness is common for men and women, rich and poor – across race, creed and color.

3.

Beating body image. Eating disorders are one of the most stigmatized mental disorders for men, partly because the image of super skinny girls with anorexia is so emblematic. But eating disorders are actually much more common across gender than once thought, and they can burden individuals of all shapes and sizes. When former Penn State football player, Joey Julius, came out with his struggle with binge eating, he gave voice to the growing reality that men also internalize body ideals and develop eating disorders that can take over the inner life of even those who seem too tough for such things.

4.

Double trouble. Pro rugby referee Nigel Owens says the biggest regret of his life was a suicide attempt when he was eighteen years old. At the same time he was struggling with an emerging eating disorder.  And now at age 45, he continues to have flair ups with bulimia nervosa. When athletes like Julius and Owens come forward about their struggles with eating disorders, it stimulates real conversations that can help create tailored mental health advertising for men that have greater potential to break down help-seeking barriers.

5.

The toll of the extreme. As the most successful and most decorated Olympian of all time, the last thing one would have expected for swimmer Michael Phelps after the 2012 Olympics would be that he would find himself suffering from depression. But the truth is that public success and private mental health struggles are more common than we care to admit. In retrospect, Phelps recognizes that he fell into a major depression following each Olympic Game. Why then? Maybe Phelps was always at risk for depression and his athleticism helped maintain his mental health – to a point. Maybe the existential question of “now what?” intensified. Maybe a biological process of “coming down” following such extreme focus, training, tension and success contributed. Whatever the combination of risk factors, Phelps’ decision to talk about his depression is worth another gold medal – this time for mental health awareness and advocacy.

Love, DeRozan, Julius, Owens and Phelps are an all-star team for raising awareness that there is nothing unmanly about mental illness. And for each of them, breaking the silence was an essential step in healing and recovery. So it should be for the too many men who suffer in silence today.

 

 

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD - Is Professor of Psychology & Director of the Mental Health Program at CUMC kmp2@cumc.columbia.edu