It is indisputable that mental health has become a social taboo in today’s society. As we slowly start to witness the mainstream acceptance of sexual expression, destruction of gender binaries, and the odd romanticization of mental illness, I find it interesting to see a high school classroom shift from ‘enthusiastic and reflective’ to ‘uncomfortable and awkward’ when confronted with the subject of mental health. Ironically enough, my social feed is filled with enthusiasm and reflection regarding mental illness. Poems from young females detail the struggles of depression, anxiety, anorexia, and self-harm occasionally pop up in my Facebook timeline. Images of semicolons drawn on girls’ wrists fill my Instagram feed annually. My twitter timeline is chalk-full with socially awkward teen gals and self-loathing young women. But wait, what about the boys? This very same question brings me a few weeks back.
Near the beginning of the school year, I met up with a close friend of mine for a coffee and a chat. My friend, Jeff, has had no experience dealing with common mental health issues, other than in his chats with me. Jeff comes from a pretty average home, with little history of family issues or anything of the sorts. After a quick talk about how his school has been going so far, we got onto the topic of mental health and drug use, mainly regarding our friend Adam.
We met Adam a while back through sports teams, and have remained friends since, even though the three of us have always attended different schools. Back when we first met him, all
of us about nine years old, he was known by his peers as one of the school bullies. He’d pick fights with kids, make fun of people he didn’t like, and hang around with the other bullies. We just happened to befriend him and get on his good side, saving ourselves from potential black eyes and name-callings. He told us at the time that he rarely got to see his father because he was either working or his mother wouldn’t let him visit. Adam was in and out of trouble through the majority of his elementary schooling, and when Adam got into Junior High, things started getting worse for him. His parents bitterly divorced, and his father’s absence from his life grew to an even greater extent. His father had moved away leaving Adam, his young sister, and his mother alone. Since then, Adam has found himself in a world of trouble: hanging around rough crowds, smoking pot, getting drunk, and maybe even more – we don’t know much about his life, he rarely ever talks. Last time I saw him, he fit the description of the classic high school thug – sporting expensive clothes, snapback caps, busted knuckles, and black eyes. He told me that he smokes pot nearly every day, skips lots of his classes, and gets in trouble with his friends from his school constantly; none of which surprised me. He said his mother often scolds him and threatens to throw him out of his house, and he only gets to see his father once a week, if even that. While watching him light up his second joint of the day, I couldn’t help but notice his glazed eyes glance downwards as he slouched over and stared at the ground, holding his forehead in his left hand and his weed in his right. “Life’s always keeping me down low,” he muttered, exhaling smoke upwards and boasting his joint, “which is why I’ve got this s*** to hold me up high.” As I watched Adam blow his problems into the air, I couldn’t help but think of the implications of his statement.
It was only a few days after I saw Adam that I got a chance to hang out with Jeff. When I told Jeff about what Adam had said, he was confused. “Why wouldn’t he just, like, look at things in a more positive way?” Jeff had asked.
“Sadly, Jeff, it’s not that simple.”
Anyone who has tried to communicate their emotions about their mental illness has probably experienced a very similar response to Jeff’s. “Why can’t you just be happy? Why don’t you just relax in social situations? Can’t you just eat more? How’s about you just not cut yourself instead?” are all questions that mentally ill people come across in nearly daily life. Comparatively, these solutions are similar to answering an essay question with a math equation – vague and unconstructive. However shocked I was by Jeff’s unfamiliarity with the subject, I must admit he did get me thinking. Jeff – when confronted with this subject – more or less represented the general public’s opinion on mental health and mental health related issues. Henceforth, I decided to ask Jeff three quick questions, just to stir up conversation.
“Alright, Jeff, I’d like you to imagine the average depressed teen, the type you’d see in a mental hospital, or in counselling, or at a psychiatrist’s office. Could you describe to me what you see in your head?”
“Hmm… okay,” he paused for a while, “well basically, I imagine a girl with long hair, tons of makeup, scarred wrists, and insecurities. She’s dressed darkly, takes medication, and all of her friends talk to her and reinforce her to make her feel better. Probably has divorced parents, or some sort of family problem, too.”
“Alright, thanks.” I responded. “Now, could you picture the average heavy drug user?”
“Easy. He’s got baggy clothes, listens to rap music, wears snapbacks, smokes pot every day, tough, angry, someone you wouldn’t want to mess with, you know? He’s the type of guy that everybody knows not to try to fight, because he’d destroy you. Probably came from a rough house or something.”
I paused, because he said exactly what I wanted him to say. “Is there any reason that the first person you imagined was a girl, and the second one was a guy?”
Jeff fell silent.
Boys have always been pressured to be manly, tough, and self-reliant, since the day we turned on the TV. Programming aimed at young boys glorify big, strong, male figures, such as superheroes, firemen, soldiers, police officers, and the sorts. These figures, deemed the epitome of masculinity, are tough, hardened men who solve things with their hands, not their heads. If a superhero has a problem, he punches it out, opening his mouth only to spout his clever catchphrase, or to demean his enemies. The romanticized feminine figure, the princess, is a polar opposite. Princesses talk to their friends, and never get down and dirty to solve their issues. They are delicate, petite, and protected by their princes and knights. If a princess has an issue, she would either talk it out with her friends, or get her male companion to fight it out for her. Boys have been taught to hide their emotions and to be self-reliant, rather than be interdependent and open with their issues and their feelings. While boys have been taught that emotional and mental issues are weaknesses to be repressed, girls have been culturally allowed to be open about their emotions and issues. While girls often talk things out and address their issues, boys will pretend they do not have any issues to talk about. This leads to a gap in perceived mental health for youth, with 4.8% of Canadian females aged 12-19 claiming their mental health to be ‘Fair or Poor’, versus 2.9% for Canadian males of the same age group, according to a 2012 Statistics Canada survey. The same year, 12.8% of males aged 12-19 admitted to being ‘heavy drinkers’ (having five or more drinks on one occasion at least once a month in the past year) versus 9.8% for females of the same age group in Canada. [i] There’s no doubt that there’s something weird about these statistics.
Emotionally, as a male, I feel repressed. I can’t talk with many of my male friends about how I am feeling. If I get sick or hurt, I’m usually told to “suck it up” rather than to seek professional help. The only socially approved emotions I can feel are either anger or love. Sadness is for girls. Pain is for girls. I do NOT want to be like a girl. I cannot be a coward, or a loser, or a baby. I have to be a man. I have to be emotionless and tough. I cannot let these girly emotions bother me. These feelings of being repressed and being uncomfortable with my own existence lead me to experience a world of negativity throughout my whole childhood.
As tough as it is for me to admit, I have had a history of depression and escapism. On one of my parents’ sides of the family spans a history of depression, dating generations back. Since early elementary school, I would go through odd depressed periods where I would spend my time hidden in my room, laying on my bed waiting for the day to end. When the sun would finally set, I would typically lie in my bed and stare at my ceiling, unable to fall asleep until 2AM, or later. These periods came on and off throughout my school years, usually lasting up to a few months – until grade nine. In grade nine, it hit me, and it hit me hard. Feeling useless, helpless, abandoned, and unloved, I turned to marijuana as a means of escape. When I smoked, I felt better about myself. I lived in the moment. I loved the world. Everything was beautiful. I could look in the mirror and see a human being, not a walking disappointment. I could sleep. I could hide, escape, run away from my problems and nobody could stop me. I had my guy friends to give me male support, and I talked to girls to get female support. All my problems were solved, except for my drug use, which started slowly impacting my relationships with my friends and family.
Jumping into tenth grade was difficult. I was under a lot of pressure, and to make things worse, I promised a friend I’d keep myself sober. My sleep schedule slowly degraded from seven hours of sleep a night to two or three. My mood took a drastic drop in the negative direction, and all my energy was put into seeming normal to my friends and family. Grades dropped, as did my motivation to eat, workout, or – really – to do anything in general. To make things worse, my parents would bug me about my marks dropping, spending too much time out of the house, and coming home late. Between September and January, I lost approximately 25lbs of weight. To make things worse, I had been hanging with some poor crowds that got me into trouble with my School Resource Officer and school administration.
After a few brief conversations, my school administrator was able to determine that my substance history was far from a risk to the safety of my school, and more so an issue of personal wellbeing. After a quick talk with my parents, the administrator recommended I seek professional help. So I did. I went to a psychiatrist, who wrote me up a prescription for sleeping medication and antidepressants. It’s been nine months since I visited my psychiatrist, and I’m feeling a lot better, not to mention that I’m drug-free.
After talking to Adam just a few weeks ago, I was briefly reminded of my history of drug use. I sympathize with people like Adam. Where Adam lacks a male role model, he fills with his friends. When Adam is feeling down, he runs away with his best friend Mary Jane. I know how he feels. I understand what it is like to be Adam – to feel helpless, rejected, judged, worthless, and stupid, when it is not his fault that he is who he is.
So, what about the boys? Where do they play into the whole mental health issue? They play into it with boys like Adam, who come from broken homes, and have problems that they feel they can’t talk about. These boys are helpless, damned, judged, and forgotten, and we are quick to label as delinquents, or problem children. Whereas females have been culturally allowed to express their feelings and emotions, males view them as weaknesses, turning to drugs and alcohol as a means of escape. It is my personal belief that rather than persecuting substance abusers for their use, it is of everyone’s best interest to lend them a helping hand. Rather than judging the drunk and the high, ask them what is wrong. More judgement and persecution will only lead to more issues for the individual. Everybody has their story. It is difficult growing up for all of us, and we all learn to deal with our hardships in our own unique ways. While some people choose to be open about their hardships, others keep it to themselves. It is not our responsibility to decide which is right or wrong, nor is it our duty to condemn those who choose to escape from, rather than to explore, their issues. Some view my friend Adam as a helpless, substance-abusing thug, but I see him for who he really is: a survivor of a lifetime of emotional trauma, persecution, judgement, and discouragement. I have hope for Adam, and I hope that one day, we – as a society – will too.
Usage and implications of male and female gender roles are loosely based on the author’s observations, and are inherently stereotypical. The purpose of this article is to point out general trends in the actions of individuals based on social constructs surrounding traits of said individual, not to reinforce them.
On a final note, I would like to personally remind you, the reader, that everybody’s situation is different. I do not endorse the use of this article to reinforce any form of stereotype, or to assist in the judgement of individuals. Just as, in this article, Adam’s situation is unique, everyone’s situation is unique.
[i] Statistics courtesy of Statistics Canada on Heavy Drinking, by Age Group and Sex (Percent) and Perceived Mental Health by Age Group and Sex (Fair or Poor (%)) accessed 17 June 2013.
Photo credits to Horia Varlan