Man up…and talk about your feelings

Melanie Dallas headshot

By Melanie Dallas, LPC

If you’re male, someone has probably said it to you at some point in your life, and probably first when you were a child: “Man up,” “Shake it off,” “You’ll be fine.” In most cases, that’s probably true, you will be fine. Getting the wind knocked out of you during a tackle, taking a wild pitch in the ribs, or even putting a fish hook through your finger is never fun of course, but you learn to accept the pain and keep going.

It’s not just in sports that men learn this. You didn’t get that promotion? Don’t sulk about it, just work harder. You say it wasn’t fair? Nobody wants to hear you complain, life isn’t fair. Your girlfriend left you? Well you can’t mope around the house nursing a broken heart – get out there and meet somebody new. The situations may be different, but the message is often the same: pain is part of life, and a man doesn’t let it slow him down – not a “real man” anyway.

I suppose such a perspective might be practical – men are supposed to be practical after all – and not letting yourself get sidetracked by a broken bone, or a broken heart, allows you to keep moving forward and get the job done. However, I really can’t think of many things worse than teaching our boys, our sons, our men that ignoring pain is somehow good. That emotional pain especially, is just not something you talk about. And that doing so makes you look weak.

As we recognize Men’s Health Month in June, and looking at some of the stats I’m going to share below, we may want to ask ourselves if these attitudes are still all that practical.

One reason we may want to change our ideas is our mental health, and specifically mental illness. One in five people will have mental illness in their lifetime, and half of all lifetime cases begin by age 14. Adolescence is often a confusing time as it is, but if you add in mental health challenges, it is probably even more difficult for a young person – especially a male in this case – to be able to make sense of what he is feeling. And more important, to talk about it.

According to Mental Health American, more than 6 million men struggle with depression each year (and, roughly one in four will ever seek help). While we might think of someone with depression as seeming sad or blue, men might exhibit different behaviors: anger, irritability and aggression; difficulty sleeping; an increase in the use of alcohol or other drugs; and increased risk-taking behavior, among other things.

But the most frightening of the statistics about men’s mental health is suicide. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, men are nearly four times more likely to die by suicide than women, and the rate of suicide is highest in middle-aged men – men in the prime of their adult lives. And while we probably can’t draw a direct line from never talking about your feelings to taking your own life, we know that keeping things bottled up inside never leads to a good place.

The things is, when a man feels depressed, or especially takes his life, it doesn’t just affect him. It affects everyone around him – his wife or partner, certainly his children, co-workers and friends. I know it can be difficult to talk about your feelings – particularly if you’ve never learned how to do it and aren’t sure if what you’re feeling is depression or anxiety or another mental health challenge. Well, men, you can learn to do it, because you have learned to do so many other important things. But the one thing you need to unlearn is to always shake it off.

Melanie Dallas is a licensed professional counselor and CEO of Highland Rivers Behavioral Health, which provides treatment and recovery services for individuals with mental illness, substance use disorders, and intellectual and developmental disabilities in a 13-county region of northwest Georgia that includes Bartow, Cherokee, Cobb, Floyd, Fannin, Gilmer, Gordon, Haralson, Murray, Paulding, Pickens, Polk and Whitfield counties.