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Toughen Up, Be Strong And Other Things We Say That Don't Support Men's Mental Health. (And What To Do Instead.)

A man walks alone on a brick pavement past columns.
Gabriel C. Pérez
Neuropsychotherapist Junice Rockman says society positively reinforces men when they take a more stoic or "stiff-upper-lip" approach to facing life's challenges. She says that is one factor that can fuel a reluctance to seek help.

We have all heard those phrases — and maybe even said them ourselves — that encourage men to power through difficult situations with little regard for feelings or emotions.

"Take it like a man."

"Big boys don't cry."

"When the going gets tough, the tough get going."

Central Texas neuropsychotherapist Junice Rockman believes phrases like these contribute to a culture that discourages men from speaking up about their feelings or their mental health.

"It's almost like a badge of honor for some men to feel like if they don't say anything they're seen as being more stoic," she says. "So the reluctance to talk is huge."

She says social "norms" about what is considered appropriate behavior for men does not help ease that reluctance.

"Is it OK, or has it been made OK, for men to talk about their feelings and their thoughts and how that affects them?" Rockman says.

Rockman says she believes more men are beginning to open up to discussing mental health, but the discomfort with doing so has deep roots.

"In particular during our early-civilization structure and then also going into a time where we began to have wars and things like that," she says, "there was sort of this thing of 'we don't have time to grieve, we don't have time to feel.'"

June is Men's Mental Health Month. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below for a further discussion on men's mental health, including what society at large can do to better support men's attention to that.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

KUT: Why is it challenging for some men to discuss their feelings and mental health in general?

Neuropsychotherapist Junice Rockman: They’re reluctant to talk and open up their mouth and say anything, first of all, even identify that anything is going on. It's kind of like taking the “tough-upper-lip” kind of stance or “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.” It's almost like a badge of honor for some men to feel like if they don't say anything they're seen as being more stoic.

So the reluctance to talk is huge, but [there's] also the social norms. Is it OK — or has it been made OK — for men to talk about their feelings and their thoughts and how that affects them? And then thirdly, I think there's a lot of minimization. There's a lot of downplaying the actual symptoms that they're experiencing.

So that reluctance, the social norms and then the minimization are huge factors and what would prevent or keep men from seeking help.

Are there specific concerns related to men's mental health?

There are at least five that we've identified that are more common among men than we actually discuss. So the depression that we talked about. Also, bipolar disorder, secondly. Anxiety would be a third one. And then general psychosis and psychiatric disorders.

And then the fifth one would be eating disorders. And that's something that we stereotypically associate with women. But there's a lot of men that have body-image issues and disordered eating, disordered thinking. If you've ever spent time around groups of men, sometimes the way that they tease or poke at each other — it feels like bullying behavior, and it's making fun of their literal physical characteristics — but it's expected to almost just be this” bro” code of just laugh it off.

When we hear about statements that should not be said because they're not helpful and when we think about those societal norms that can keep men from expressing feelings or getting help — how did all of that set in in the first place?

When we think back in terms of anthropology, sort of our primitive roots, and we think about this idea of hunter gatherers and this concept of being stoic and being in survival mode — in other words, you need to cut away all the fat, anything that's not necessary for our survival, our ultimate survival as a community or a tribe or a species — we're not going to deal with it.

I think that on some level, in particular during our early -civilization structure and then also going into a time where we began to have wars and things like that, there was sort of this thing of we don't have time to grieve, we don't have time to feel. But I think that sometimes we continue to operate with archaic mindsets when they're no longer serving us.

What do you see as the relationship between focusing on men's mental health issues and then when we see things in the news about the #MeToo movement or we hear about workplaces where male bosses have been abusive to people who are working for them? What's the intersection of those two things?

It doesn't have to be either/or; it can be both/and. We can talk about appropriate boundaries and appropriate ways of communicating for men and holding men, holding people accountable first of all, but specifically men accountable for their actions and their behaviors in the workplace.

For a long time, for years, if a boy was bullying a girl at school, then it was like, "Oh, well, he must like you." So it was normalized, and he was given a pass. So [we need to teach] our children not to mistreat or make unwanted gestures or advances toward people or toward girls or toward women, so that it's not normalized and joked about and minimalized, and that there is some accountability. But I think that's also a part of mental health, so that men don't feel that they have to use power and control, which is a form of abuse, in order to be heard

Overall, in general, what are things that all of us can do to best support men's mental health and their exploration of their mental health — whether that's just paying closer attention or maybe even seeking help. What can all of us do to be supportive in that role?

I think it's a good thing to be able to have conversations with the boys and the men in your life and ask questions. And when you ask questions, don't try and fix them. Don't make it feel like an interrogation or an interview. You can even say things like, “Do you want to tell me more about that?” Or, “That's really interesting. I didn't know that. I'm so glad you shared that. Is there anything else you want to say? What do you think?” And then also changing the question to, “Well, how do you feel about that?”

And now that we're starting to gather again, the next time that you have a gathering or a birthday celebration or a holiday, I think it's a wonderful roundtable discussion to have about what are ways that we can show up in a healthy way, healthy masculinity. We talk so much about toxic masculinity, but what does healthy masculinity look like? And I think the more that we do that, we start to shift the conversation. We start to shift the culture. One by one we start to make it a new norm, the new healthy norm.

Got a tip? Email Jennifer Stayton at Follow her on Twitter @jenstayton.

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Jennifer Stayton is the local host for NPR's "Morning Edition" on KUT. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on X @jenstayton.
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