Boys and men comprise two-thirds of those who die by suicide worldwide, yet are 12% less likely than women to seek out therapy during times of emotional distress.
On World Mental Health Day, men from across the country took to social media to voice their thoughts on how rigid gender norms about what it means to be a man have caged them in a way that is detrimental to their mental wellbeing.
Celebrities such as Sidharth Malhotra, John Abraham, Vir Das, Dia Mirza, Kalki Koechlin, Shraddha Das, and Mini Mathur voiced their support for supporting these crucial conversations as well. Businessman Raj Nayak commented on the need to “enable conversations among boys about mental health and masculinity,” while Supreme Court advocate Karuna Nundy commented on how “toxic masculinity is brutalising our men and boys — and in turn, girls and women”.
“You are not a ‘sissy’ or less of a man if you seek help when you feel distressed or dejected, or when you express your emotions,” wrote Abhijeet Das, social media lead for the Aam Admi Party.
More than 400 men and women united through digital media to discuss how this issue has impacted them, with mothers and fathers chiming in about the psychological stressors their sons had experienced and reflecting on the way society had suggested they stifle their cries for help.
Starting from early childhood and well beyond, men are constantly conditioned to repress their emotions. Because of this, they have a tendency to minimise their depressive symptoms, perpetuating the belief that women tend to be far more predisposed to depression. Research shows, however, that differential rates in diagnosis are more influenced by gender norms than genetics or physiology.
“We don't realise that by trying to live up to society's definitions of being a man, we aren't allowing ourselves to feel the full spectrum of emotions because we believe we ‘need’ to be strong. And that can get toxic,” said Nikhil Taneja, founder of Yuvaa, a digital platform and community for Indian youth. “Boys are told that being a man means earning money to 'be the man of the family,' without emotion. When you constantly tell men not to express, just 'be men', they eventually crack under the pressure.”
Human rights activist Harish Iyer joined the conversation on Thursday, going live on Periscope to contribute his thoughts, and passionately emphasised, “Gender norms are suffocating. They confine you and define you and put you in a box without ventilation. They don’t allow you to expand your mind to the idea of equality. And they teach you to be unfair and insensitive.”
“Societal gender norms took away my freedom to be me: I couldn’t dance my heart out, smile excessively, or be overtly expressive. The guilt of not being manly enough takes a toll on you; no one deserves that stress and anxiety,” reflected Sagar Galani, a Bandra native who works in real estate development.
It is rare to see conversations among men about toxic masculinity and what they can do to dismantle these norms that harm them and their capacity for healthy relationships.
According to Ravi Verma, Asia Regional Director for the International Center for Research on Women, “Toxic masculinity is a set of norms, attitudes and behaviours to justify dominance and violence to sustain unequal power relations. Both men and women engage with them.”
Daddy Files founder Aaron Gouveia said, “It’s every time someone tells a boy he ‘throws like a girl’. Every time someone explains away bad behaviour with ‘boys will be boys’. Toxic masculinity is everywhere and must first be recognised before we can battle it.”
While we sometimes create space to talk about how we need to “raise our sons better”, we need to more seriously address how our society has constricted their self-expression through the way that “strong” men are portrayed in the media.We also see these unreasonable expectations of psychological strength among boys in levels of reporting when incidents of sexual abuse occur. Around 53% of sexual abuse incidents in India each year are crimes against boys, but boys are 89% less likely than girls to reach out for psychiatric support after they have been victims of sexual violence.
Some young leaders are starting to create opportunities for men to come together to discuss the way gender norms harm them. Mihir Parekh, a Research Assistant at IIM-Bangalore, hosts Men’s Only #MeToo meet-ups where masc-identifying people can come together to discuss anonymously their experiences as survivors of sexual abuse.
I had the chance to sit down with Parekh, who said, “When speaking to sexual abuse and harassment victims, I learned that the biggest obstacle to talking about masculinity through any narrative is: fear. Fear of being judged, excluded, hurt and, most importantly, misunderstood. I believe that men face trouble in articulating such thoughts simply because there is a sheer lack of importance attached to such discussions, and there is a sheer lack of education. Men aren’t taught that their voices are important in the narrative of gender, sex, and masculinity.”
On how he has liberated himself to defy society’s rigid gender norms, Iyer reflected, “I don’t pressurise myself to stay brave. I am timid at times. To weep is not for the weak. Tears are a result of overcoming of the fear of being judged. Owning every cell of my body and every emotion in my brain has made me.”
Said Taneja, “My takeaway from this conversation is the necessity of having this conversation more, louder, together. We won't be able to address toxic masculinity unless we first talk about masculinity. Whether it takes therapy or dialogue, men need to first be human before being 'men'.”
One Twitter user replied, “Yes, we desperately need to have more of these conversations. But where, and how?”
As a city and a society where men are hungry to engage in dialogue on their own masculinity, what are we doing to create spaces where they can do so?
(The author is the Head of Communications and Advocacy at Aangan Trust, a child protection non-profit. Views expressed here are the author’s own.)