When most people hear the word “Movember,” we typically think of men proudly growing bushy mustaches during the month of November. But it’s actually much greater than just a celebration of facial hair. Movember started in Australia in 2013, where a group of guy friends decided to grow mustaches together for a month to raise awareness of prostate and testicular cancer. Since then, it’s become a worldwide campaign that champions awareness of all men’s health issues – including mental health.
While I personally will not be growing out my mustache in November, I do feel that this month is a great opportunity to reflect on the barriers experienced by men in addressing their mental health needs. It’s an important topic, especially right now. According to Mental Health America, more than 6 million U.S. men suffer from depression and more than 3 million struggle with an anxiety disorder. Men are less likely than women to be diagnosed or treated for mental illness – some experts believe this is because men are more likely to report symptoms of fatigue, irritability, or loss of interest in work or hobbies – instead of the “typical” depression symptoms of feeling sad or worthless. And men are also four times more likely than women to die by suicide.
As a licensed therapist and drug and alcohol counselor, I’ve worked with my fair share of male clients. One of my first experiences working as a licensed alcohol and drug counselor was in a men’s evening outpatient program, where counselors provided treatment to male clients for both mental and chemical health concerns. In many cases, mental health struggles and trauma were “the egg” and addiction was “the chicken” that hatched as a result. Sometimes that order was reversed. I learned early on that there is often a correlation between unaddressed mental health concerns and trauma, and the onset of substance use disorders – particularly in men.
Our program helped male clients explore how their lives had been shaped by what author Dan Griffin calls the “Man Rules.” According to Griffin, the Man Rules are those unwritten rules that men are often socialized to follow in adolescence and childhood: Don’t cry. Don’t show emotion. Don’t be weak. Be tough. Don’t ask for help. Solve your own problems. For many of the men I worked with, these “rules” resonated deeply with them – they talked about experiences on the playground in grade school where they were shamed by their peers for crying. Or times growing up where male role models told them to “tough it out” when it came to crying – ultimately teaching them that crying, or showing emotion in any way, was unacceptable.
Understanding that toxic masculinity can be detrimental to men’s mental health, our program aimed to help shift our clients’ thinking towards conscious masculinity – essentially taking the Man Rules and redefining them to fit a new, healthier attitude. Instead of perceiving difficult emotions as signs of weakness, we can reframe and normalize those feelings. And instead of championing the “go-it-alone” stoicism that often forces men to suffer in isolation, we can encourage men to actively seek connection and support.
By entering our program, our male clients were expected to participate in activities that challenged the Man Rules. They learned to share difficult emotions with other men in the treatment group. They got comfortable talking about their feelings with a therapist. They experienced what it’s like – many of them for the first time – to shed a tear and be told “it’s OK.” It was deeply inspirational to witness some of these men become more comfortable in sharing their vulnerabilities and struggles with others.
Which brings me back to Movember 2020. None of us are immune to the struggles that COVID-19 has brought our families and communities. Perhaps you, or one of the men in your life, have come to realize that your struggles are reaching a crossroad and that you need to decide whether or not to accept help. My hope is that reading this piece can help you reflect on your own challenges with emotional vulnerability – and perhaps even be a call to rewrite some of your own Man Rules that are impacting your life. Know that help is out there and you don’t have to suffer in silence. Seek help – and maybe grow an awesome ‘stache in the process.
Chris Lawler is a school services therapist with Relate Counseling Center. He currently works in Minnetonka High School and Wayzata High School.