In the year 2020, what does it mean to “be a man”? There are many answers to that question depending on who you speak to. Some still see manhood through traditional Westernized cultural traits, such as being the breadwinner of the family and learning how to do manual labor like fixing a car or repairing a leaking pipe. Others have challenged traditional traits of manhood and no longer ascribe to masculine gender roles. The Oxford Dictionary defines masculinity as “qualities or attributes regarded as characteristics of men.” 

Masculinity in the United States has long had the reputation of independence, courage and strength. Men are seen as the leaders and gatekeepers of our communities. From an early age, boys are introduced to clothing and toys adorned in colors of blue and green. As they grow older, roughhousing is a sacred rite of passage for a lot of young men. Vulnerability is looked at as a weakness. Boys are taught at an early age to dry their tears quickly, or better yet, not cry at all. Emotions are typically held in, and if released, it should be in the form of physical exertion or anger.  If you are a man of color in the U.S., the rules and boundaries of masculinity become even more restrictive. There is a long history of oppression with men of color when it comes to how they present themselves in the community and at home.  Caught between the ideas that expressing emotions is perceived as being weak or their emotions will be seen as a threat in our society, men of color are taught to refrain from showing emotion. As we see even in 2020, misconceptions of emotional displays by men of color, specifically Black and Brown men of color, can lead to persecution and even death.  Though masculinity comes with many privileges, there are some disadvantages when it comes to managing and communicating emotional needs.

So, what are the effects of creating a culture that does not allow individuals to express themselves? The erasure of emotion in young boys leads to broken men. This brokenness is not found in the expression of emotion, but often the lack thereof. Men are less likely to communicate their emotions, leading to mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. Because mental illness diagnoses still hold a stigma, some men will not go to a therapist to get a diagnosis and try to manage their symptoms on their own. I feel for men. As a woman who has struggled with vulnerability and expressing my emotions, I cannot imagine how difficult it must be for men, with the expectations of masculinity, to do the same. Unfortunately, we teach men from a young age that vulnerability makes them less than a man. The more we hold on to these unfair emotional expectations, the longer men suffer in silence. I challenge men, and women who support men, to reevaluate our definition of masculinity so that men can get the proper mental health services they need. Here are two things to remember when exploring masculinity and its effects on mental health.

1. Big Boys DO Cry (and Laugh, Worry, Scream, etc.)

The idea that men should be able to “keep it together” at all times is ridiculous and unfair.  Femininity is often synonymous with emotion, while masculinity is not given the same grace. I remember the first and only time I ever heard my father cry. My sisters and I called to check up on him, as we heard that he was experiencing some depressive symptoms. I remember him telling us that he was OK before breaking into tears. I have often wondered how many times before that moment he held his emotions in before finally being vulnerable before his daughters.  I felt both honored and uncomfortable with his vulnerability; honored that he felt comfortable enough to share his emotions with us and uncomfortable because holding space for the emotions of a man, even if it was my father, was not a common occurrence. The truth is men experience the same emotions as women! Though they may not express those emotions in the same way, they are capable of feeling jealousy, anger, sadness, happiness, excitement, etc. These are human emotions. Men have bad days, weeks and months and should be given the liberty to express their struggles through more than anger or frustration. We all own a part in creating open spaces and environments for the men in our lives to be multifaceted. Acknowledging and validating the emotions of men from a young age is imperative to fostering healthy mental health practices in their youth and adulthood.

2. No Man Is an Island

No one is exclusively independent. My hope is that every man would have a support system that they can talk to when they feel angry, depressed or worried about life. And when that support system is not enough, I hope their loved ones encourage them to seek professional help. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of being human. Pride and tradition are great values to hold on to, however, if those values contribute to a person’s own demise, it may be time to find another way. Let’s end the stigma that seeking mental health services means something is “wrong” with the individual. In contrast, seeking help for an illness is the responsible thing to do. Finding a professional who can help navigate emotions can benefit a person’s life and the lives of those around them.The more people who support a person in need of help, the more likely they will have a well-rounded mental health regimen. 

Our society is ever-changing. Culture always evolves as thoughts and ideas progress. Every individual deserves to be able to express themselves appropriately without their identity being questioned. Emotions are universal and should not be dictated by gender roles. During Men’s Health Month, let’s make mental health a priority. Reach out to the men in our lives and validate their emotions. Just like my father during our telephone call, sometimes men are just asking permission to be vulnerable with no judgment. They are entitled to that right. What does it mean to be a man in 2020? I believe it means taking care of your health, both mentally and physically, so you can be your best self for yourself and your community. 

If you need treatment for mental health, please contact Discovery Mood & Anxiety Programs.

April Cox is a permanency specialist II at Professional Family Care Services in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. She is passionate about the mental health of individuals and families and prides her work on providing practical ways to promote mental health wellness. April has a BA in sociology and has worked as a therapeutic staff support, family-based counselor, and drug and alcohol counselor before transitioning to child welfare, where she helps foster children and foster families process past traumas. April is passionate about the arts and spends her evenings teaching dance classes to all ages.