What is this depression nonsense? Just stop crying and act like a man! 

Men struggling with difficult emotions have often received similar counsel at some point in their lives, usually from a male relative or friend. And while such advice may even be well-intentioned, it is deeply insensitive—it both invalidates the person’s experience, and blames them for not living up to some imaginary ideal of tough masculinity. As the world observes Men’s Health Month in June, let’s examine why the myth of the ‘bulletproof’ man is hurting, rather than helping men deal with the challenges of modern-day living. 

It’s not ‘all in the mind’

Mental health is a vital part of overall health for both men and women. Studies have shown that conditions like stress, depression and anxiety do not discriminate on the basis of gender. But while men and women are more or less equally prone to mental illness, data from across the world indicates that more men take extreme steps. 

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Photo by Karl Fredrickson on Unsplash

In 2018, men accounted for over 68% of suicides across India, according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). A significant number of men who took their lives were daily-wage earners, self-employed or unemployed people. Also highlighting the strong economic motivations behind such acts is the fact that 66% of all suicides were by people who earned less than Rs.1 lakh per annum. Among stated causes, family problems and illness (especially mental illness) took a major toll on men. 

While mental illness can be genetically inherited, conditioning also plays a major role. In patriarchal societies, boys and men are told to take emotional distress on the chin without complaint, while girls and women are told it’s okay to cry and share their problems with others. This stereotype is further exaggerated by the archetypal movie hero, whose innate greatness and cool aloofness (not to mention rippling muscles) are his biggest assets. Sadly, flawed gender stereotypes like these get imprinted deeply in the mind from childhood and often affect how men deal with problems in adulthood as well.

For one, men learn to associate their self-worth directly with their earnings, job title, or their prowess as providers. They also grow to associate masculinity with things such as competitiveness, homophobia, misogyny and aggression—all of which can lead to bad life experiences. And since men repress their emotions for long periods of time, they are also more likely to vent in unhealthy ways—through anger, harm towards the self or others, or substance addiction. (Unsurprisingly, addiction to drugs or alcohol was responsible for 5.3% of India’s suicide deaths in 2018.)

Link between mental health and excessive masculinity

Research suggests that men who conform to traditional ideas of masculinity are more likely to face mental health issues or even to kill themselves, than men who don’t. And conversely, countries that are more gender-equal seem to have better well-being and lower depression rates among both male and female residents. In a nutshell, internalising the myth of the ‘bulletproof’ male tends to do more damage than good, for multiple reasons:

  • It is a fragile definition of manhood that can shatter easily. Increased global volatility and the realignment of socio-economic structures can come as a shock to those who’ve been used to men “being on top” always. Situations like economic slowdowns or global pandemics can shake the illusion of control, power or dominance in men, thus increasing stress or depression risks.
     
  • It sets unrealistic expectations on men to be ‘strong’ all the time. Every normal human being goes through a wide spectrum of positive and negative emotions every day. It is impossible to expect anyone to always be strong—just as it is unreasonable to expect someone to carry one single mood or expression all day long.
     
  • It discourages communication and seeking of support: As we have seen, falling back on the ‘bulletproof male’ notion is ultimately ineffective because it discourages sharing one’s feelings. However, science shows that mental illnesses can be best addressed through open communication (which may or may not involve therapy), seeking support from one’s immediate circle, and a healthy lifestyle.

Around the world, male celebrities have started speaking out against the culture of toxic masculinity and how it prevents men from getting the help they need. As the globe goes through a difficult pandemic and prolonged economic slowdown, false narratives around masculinity need to be countered with science-backed inputs in how such ideas affect well-being for men as well as those around them. Destigmatising mental illness, encouraging open conversations, and building positive self-care habits such as mindfulness and exercise can help men unlock lasting reserves of strength and resilience within.    

The myth of the ‘bulletproof man’ does more harm than good when it comes to addressing mental health problems