Editor’s Note: This post is a part of What's A Man, a series exploring masculinity in India, in collaboration with Dr. Deepa Narayan. Join the conversation here!
A patriarchal society means putting male figures in positions of authority. But it doesn’t simply imply subjugation of women at the hands of men. A patriarchal system assigns roles and responsibilities to individuals on the basis of their gender – you’re expected to be a caretaker if you’re a woman and bread-earner if you’re a man; more importantly, if you aren’t either of them, you might be deprived of any social role.
These gender-based social roles come pre-validated and control the lives of both men and women. Young daughters should help their mother in the kitchen after school, boys should play on the playground; women should study to get an educated man for a husband, men should study to provide for their family; women should choose motherhood at a certain age, men should have higher salaries and job roles when they get married; women should be able to make gol rotis (round flatbread) for the family, men should have enough savings to buy a house for his wife after marriage; women don’t shout, men don’t cry; women need someone to depend on, men should be independent; women should not wear pants, men should not wear pink shirts.
This list might take up pages after pages if we were to make a rulebook of how to live our lives based on our gender. However, what these dos and don’ts do not consider is the impact of these expectations on one’s mental health. Instances of constant badgering and burdening an individual to act a certain way and depriving them of exercising their choice can lead to life-long psychological conditions.
Many young urban circles have started normalising conversations around mental health. Many schools, colleges and corporate offices provide free counselling service to members of their institute. Multiple NGOs and activists are constantly working towards creating awareness around the meaning and importance of mental health. However, we still hesitate to have such conversations with most of our friends, colleagues, family members or neighbours.
And when it comes to men, these conversations become few and far between. When asked about opening up to their close circle on mental health, 24-year-old Harshit* said, “I haven’t had this type of conversation with anyone.” Twenty-five-year-old Aryan* from Delhi shared a similar sentiment: “I don’t feel quite easy to just mention it to anyone in any conversation.”
What is keeping men from sharing their vulnerabilities with others? Here are five reasons men revealed that keep them from opening up about their mental health.
After 22-year-old Lakshit* completed his graduation, he wanted to give himself a year-long break to write, think and practice music. “But these things are not counted as work,” he said. “Adamant about not letting me sit idle at home, my parents’ mental pressure made me take up a job,” Lakshit added. When he couldn’t explain to his parents about his interests and why he didn’t like the monotony of jobs, he left it without giving any justification. To safe keep his mental freedom, he instead enrolled himself in a college.
Lakshit said that every time this conversation comes up, a classic line that he hears from his mother is: “I don’t want you to end up like those men in our family who can’t even feed their family even at an older age. That’s why I am cautious with you. You should go to work, do something and make me realise that you’re working instead of sitting idle. My mother is a well-intentioned person but she doesn’t understand where I am coming from.”
The expectation to earn falls more so on men than it does on women. While women will be married off into another family, it becomes the son’s responsibility to carry forward the name of the family and lead the family once they become eligible to earn. This expectation not just impacts the mental health of a man, but also hinders them to open up to their family about being vulnerable.
Any struggle regarding mental health is seen as a sign of weakness and this misperception emanates from two discriminatory systems – one is the patriarchal system that sees vulnerable men as not masculine enough. Men are supposed to strong and quiet, who can just absorb all the stress in their surroundings.
“Sometimes, men take themselves too seriously. The burden of the world is not on their shoulders. They need to understand that true strength lies in acknowledging that we are weak sometimes,” said Harish Iyer, human rights activist.
Perhaps, this realisation is why they decided to speak about their abusive childhood for the first time with a counsellor at the age of 38. “As a child, I always thought I’d face prejudice against speaking up about my problems of the mind,” they said.
These prejudices are conditioned in everyone right from their childhood. Men do not want to admit that they are weak or need support. Simultaneously, the conception of mental health itself in India renders someone with a mental condition as incapable, dependent and ‘pagal’ (mad). Due to the heroic image of men that society perpetuates, imagining themselves as someone with depression or anxiety can become scary for them.
Due to the continued stigma around mental health, men find it embarrassing to take time off work. It can hurt their perception of themselves as well as their employer’s perception of them. Aryan shared his experience during an internship: “Once, I was told by my manager that I wasn’t given too much work because they were afraid it would cause me stress and worsen my anxiety. I absolutely hated it,” he said.
Aryan suffers from the condition of anxiety and seasonal depression. But what would worry him the most was the tremors in his hand during his depressive phases. “I was afraid my colleagues would think that my condition will impede my ability to work,” he said.
However, things changed for the better when he went to the US. “A couple of weeks ago, I told my colleagues about my anxiety and that my hands shake a lot sometimes, so it might affect the quality of my work that time. They assured me that it doesn’t mean that I can’t do things. They said I can say no to some of the work on those days if I am too afraid to take them up,” Aryan said.
Be it our family, friends, counsellors or even strangers, we all need someone to confide in. In many cases, mental health issues develop or get accentuated if we don’t have people we can talk to. “My mental health issues on a daily basis root from the fact that I am unable to share with my family, or people in general,” said Lakshit. “When my closest circle starts becoming hostile or unfamiliar to me, my mental health starts taking a toll,” he added.
Instead, Lakshit feels the most comfortable in sharing with people unknown to him. “If someone doesn’t know me, I have a fresh chance at building myself up for them, and there is no baggage of the past that comes along with it,” Lakshit said. “On the other hand, if I confide in someone during sensitive times, they find a way to fire toxicity at me,” he added.
For Dhruv*, talking about his mental health with his female friends gives him positivity. “Most of my friends are women and in my case, they have been more sensitive, empathetic and emotive when I approach them. They point out where I am going right or wrong in my approach,” he said. When it comes to confiding in his male friends, “some have tried to understand his problem and offer advice, but most have just joked around, without gauging the sensitivity of the issue,” he said.
Aryan concurred. “Usually, in a group of guys, people don’t always talk about very personal stuff. I have been in so many situations where I’ve talked too much and later wondered if others are thinking ‘Why is he telling this to us? It’s too much detail that we didn’t ask for.”
Even if a man and woman are suffering through the same mental condition, their symptoms might look different. According to WebMD, a woman with depression expresses sadness and feeling of worthlessness, while men respond with anger, impulsivity or frustration. These moods might not immediately indicate a case of depression and thus lead to under-diagnosis or misdiagnosis of men.
Similarly, many men also take up drug or alcohol abuse as a maladaptive coping strategy in case of mental health issues. These behaviours are often widely accepted as being normal for the male population, again leading to under-diagnosis.
By addressing the discourse of both patriarchy and mental health, we can end the double stigma that many men face. The mental health discourse should change from it being a weakness to it being a curable condition. This shift will allow people to lend an empathetic ear to those who are struggling and wish to talk about it.
(*names have been changed to protect identities)