Boys, men and mental health

In recent years, there has been a growing conversation about mental health in the mainstream media. And in part, you could put that down to the power of celebrity. One effect of this seems to be that it gave us all permission to look at ourselves and acknowledge that “it’s okay not to be okay.”

This might not seem such a revelation for girls and women. After all, it’s clear from watching children play and interact that girls are socialised to talk about how they feel and what’s going on for them. However, in contrast, boys have always been less inclined to communicate how they feel. It’s just that it might take more of a keen eye as opposed to a keen ear. Boys and men in our society are just now creating spaces where they feel comfortable talking about “what’s the deal”.

So, celebrities coming out to share their vulnerabilities has been a game changer. More men and boys have now started to talk about what they really feel about themselves and society in general and talking about what they think and feel about their future life challenges or events that have taken place in the past. Nonetheless, there is a history behind why boys were socialised to be tough and bottle-up emotions, and we need to appreciate that before just labelling it as negative.

In the pre-industrialised world, particularly in Northern Europe, life was tough for both men and women. Most people lived on what we would rightly consider well below the poverty line and cold weather, wild animals and food shortages bred a particular form of masculinity. Being the physically stronger of the two, men found themselves in a leadership role. Yes, there was power and responsibility, but the environment didn’t really lend itself to men who couldn’t exert a certain level of self-control.

Since those days, we have gained more control over our environment and with the advances in science, we have created an industrialised, automated world. So, the necessity for super tough, emotionally repressed men is outdated. The good news is that boys and men can get in touch with their feelings and learn more about how to connect with and heal their inner being. However, the not-so-good news is that it has to be on men’s terms. What we don’t want is a performative, new-age masculinity modelled after some female archetype. Some boys and men will still prefer to watch or participate in sports like boxing or rugby and reside in what we could call ‘a masculine frame’ and still be able to understand how they feel and express that where they feel safe.

Mental health across society is more and more destigmatised, and that’s a good thing. As a society, we create more safe spaces for boys and men, who find it appealing or relevant, so it may help that pressure cooker effect that sometimes takes place when young men who have been holding in a range of suppressed feelings blow a fuse and explode inwardly and self-harm or lash out at a person or property. Because essentially, that’s the elephant in the room. If boys and men don’t learn how to work through their more challenging emotions, then there is a risk that they will behave in ways that are potentially harmful to themselves as well as those around them.

Working as a psychotherapist for over 14 years and with teenage boys as a counselling mentor, what has come to my attention is helping young men figure things out in terms of how they feel, why they feel that way and what type of man they want to become – it’s not just that it’s an honour to be part of that process, but it’s sacred work.

For aeons, this work was done by priests and a shaman. We just added a modern twist, where we talk about self-care and say, “Guys, think about your sleep patterns. When do you sleep, and for how long.” Good sleep helps with positive mental health. “Fellas, how are you eating? Regular meals with balanced nutrition or junk and sweets. And are you exercising? Alright, you don’t want to join the gym, but did you think about doing a free exercise video from YouTube or just going for a walk in the park?”

We know that nature makes us feel good. And research suggests vigorous exercise three times a week can significantly improve well-being. In fact, a recent study done by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that running for 15 minutes a day or walking for an hour reduces the risk of major depression by 26%.

Now isn’t that something to think about?