The Foundations for Men’s Mental Health Begin in Childhood

Dispelling the myths that deny males the right to healthy emotional expression
Portrait of a man with hands on face, depressed expression, in black and white.
© Can Stock Photo / krsmanovic

Although many of the taboos associated with mental health have become somewhat demystified in recent years—from the outpouring of celebrity “coming outs” on social media to the abundance of self-help bestsellers lining bookstore shelves—there remains the idea that mental health struggles equal a certain fragility, especially one that is relegated to the traditional heteronormative feminine. In a society based on gender role constructs that have women crying and men protecting, there is little room for deviation from those norms. But mental health struggles are irrespective of sex or gender, and while both men and women equally struggle, for men it is often compounded by feelings of extreme shame, as being honest about emotions and pain still rests in the realm of the feminine. Raised to be tough, to be expected to “man up”, fight, protect, and rationalize, men can feel as if there is little freedom to admit they are overwhelmed, afraid, or need help.

Men have less practice expressing emotions

Thinking back to our infant years, we used crying as our main source of communication before we could properly use words. Tears when we were injured, cries of protest when it was time for bed, and temper tantrums when things didn’t go as planned, we felt and expressed our emotions without restraint. Before very long, we learned to filter the way we expressed our emotions based on societal standards of what was acceptable. Boys don’t cry, but girls can; boys don’t sulk, but girls can. From an early age we are programmed to adopt certain societal expectations, and females, having long been considered "emotional" beings who can acceptably show their feelings, are then given a greater opportunity to develop their emotional maturity simply because they've been granted the opportunity to have more practice.

10 Most Common Symptoms of Impaired Mental Health

  • Fatigue

  • Insomnia and/or excessive sleepiness

  • Decreased resilience to stress

  • Brain fog (poor memory, decreased concentration and/or motivation, etc.)

  • Feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness

  • Social isolation

  • Poor appetite or overeating

  • Decreased libido

  • Increased aggression

  • Abnormal weight gain/loss

Yet, somewhere along the line, mental health issues like depression, eating disorders, and anxiety were designated as diseases within the female domain. Because of this sexist attribution, men themselves are often the last ones to know they need help, are less likely to recognize symptoms or seek treatment, and they have a significantly higher incidence of suicide than women, with males in male-dominated industries particularly at risk.

Not acknowledging the reality that men can suffer from mental health issues too creates a taboo that is difficult to violate. A cycle is then perpetuated, which features unhealthy coping mechanisms, poor communication and relationships, and unfulfilled potential, stunting emotional maturity and the ability to heal and create deeper connections.

Normalizing mental health struggles for everyone

It's time to change what it means to "be a man" and normalize mental health struggles for everyone. Strength is far less how much you can bench press and far more how you navigate adversity and emotional turmoil, and how you find courage to admit you need help. Truly, being vulnerable takes the most strength.

Our attitude about mental health is slowly progressing, with a long way still to go. We can continue this shift by having conversations, decreasing the stigma around mental health, and by remembering that regardless of gender, sexual identity, race, or political agenda, mental health issues can afflict anyone. As biological beings, we have similarly complex dimensions of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health that are constantly in flux. When we accept this, we help break down barriers and level the playing field for males to seek help, to live healthier lives, and form deeper insight into themselves and forge stronger connections with others. 

MEN-tal health on the MEN-u

Make maintaining mental wellness a priority by implementing these simple steps into your daily routine!

Everyday Exercise. Aim for 30-60 minutes of moderate activity at least three times a week. Research shows that those who maintain a more active lifestyle have lower recurrences of depression, as well as a greater tolerance of life’s stressors--especially so when it's done outside. Even an activity as gentle as yoga has been found to be effective at reducing both depression and anxiety!

Sweet Sleep. Getting at least eight hours of good quality sleep per night is essential. Poor sleep has been linked to increased risk of major depression, suicidal behaviours, and even cardiovascular disease.

Daily Diet. There’s powerful healing potential in our daily habits, especially in the foods we eat. Omega-3 fatty acids, niacin, folate, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12 are just some of the nutrients that are vital for mental health. Eating a well-rounded diet that heavily features fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats ensures we put our most resilient foot forward! Lean on mental wellness boosters like salmon, blueberries, leafy greens, avocados and almonds!

Crucial Connections. A daily dose of positive human connection may be just as important as your daily dose of vitamin D. In fact, research has found that limited social interaction has the same negative impacts as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and excessive alcohol, to be more harmful than not exercising, and twice as harmful as being obese!

Seek Support. Cognitive behavioural therapy has been well-studied in the management of both depression and anxiety (including post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and panic disorder). A licensed health professional can help you safely and effectively navigate your healing journey.

Changing the myths of men’s mental health

We can change the narrative for our children from early on, no matter their gender, by normalizing emotions and creating an atmosphere of open conversation.

It’s okay to cry. Being sad or anxious isn’t a sign of weakness and including boys in the range of human emotions helps to obliterate the traditional unhealthy façade of masculinity that denies them vital coping skills.

Talking about your feelings is good. Keeping lines of communication open and providing safe spaces where your children feel like they can communicate honestly encourages an environment of trust where they can work out what troubles them.

There are no “bad” emotions. Avoid labels and encourage your children to recognize the whole spectrum of emotions as valid. Focus on what their emotions are telling them and teach them how to respond appropriately without denying them an outlet.

Schedule regular check-ins. Even if you think your child is fine. Opening the door to communication reminds them that you’re available if they need it.

Therapy is for everyone. There is an unmatched feeling of liberation that comes with owning up to the decisions you made for yourself in order to elevate your health.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, please contact:

In Canada

In the US

In cases of emergency, immediately contact 911 and visit your local emergency department.