The following post was written by Jeremy Wagner.
Jeremy is a Graduate Research Fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and a Master of International Public Policy Candidate at the Balsillie School of International Affairs. His research interests are in food security and public health.
Openly discussing depression and anxiety can be difficult for anyone who struggles with their mental health — but for men, the cultural baggage of traditional masculinity bears with it unique challenges.
There’s an obvious stigma when it comes to men and anxiety. Research suggests many men find it difficult to disclose anxiety and depression symptoms. In a society where “being a man” is conflated with being stoic, it’s hard for men to come forward and reveal they struggle with their mental health. As a result, it goes unheard; it hides in the shadows.
Yet, it’s a chronic public health issue. Anxiety is systemic in men and women alike; an estimated 11.6% of Canadians aged 18 years or older have a depression or anxiety disorder. Gendered social constructions ensure that mental health experiences can vary between men and woman.
Depression is characterized by the lowering or elevation of a person’s mood and aversion to activity that can affect a person’s thoughts, behaviour, and sense of well-being. On the other hand, anxiety is more so an excessive and persistent feeling of nervousness, fear, and guilt. Both disorders, often comorbid diagnoses, interfere with an individual’s everyday life.
The symptoms of anxiety and depression are challenging to deal with, but for different reasons. It’s easier to cope with symptoms of depression at school or work. After all, just getting dressed and showing up means you’re fighting back. It’s when you’re alone that’s the hardest. Anxiety can be a bit trickier because of the social triggers (large crowds, public speaking etc.) and physical symptoms that come with being anxious such as difficulty breathing and becoming overheated.
Men with anxiety and depression often feel something additional – shame. If you’re male and have been socialized to be in control of your emotions, struggling with mental health is perceived as a sign of weakness. “I’m vulnerable, and I’m failing” may be the common narrative. It’s a vicious cycle; when you’re suffering from it, one bad interaction or over-analysis is enough to send you into a destructive spiral of thought. Embarrassment can prevent men from acknowledging their struggle publicly.
Instead of seeking help, 30% of men with anxiety turn to substances such as drugs and alcohol as a way to cope with their symptoms. Men can be more impulsive, and this partially accounts for their higher reliance on substances to cope with feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression.
Self-medicating substances override the brain’s natural reward system, which is usually activated by pleasurable stimuli, such as sex, and produces a rush of feel-good chemicals. The ingestion of substances including alcohol, marijuana, and nicotine produces identical pleasure effects. When endorphins, the same chemicals responsible for the “runner’s high”, are released naturally or by substances, they bind to receptors that dull emotional pain and calm the nerves. Feelings of calm and relaxation are what people with anxiety are seeking when they self-medicate.
If men struggle to talk about their depression and anxiety in fear of seeming weak or vulnerable, then perhaps there’s other ways to cope. After all, going for a run and having a glass of wine (or two) have similar effects on mood. If you find it difficult to talk about and professional care isn’t a viable option for you, then engagement in self-management strategies can at least manage, if not improve, your well-being.
I recently had the privilege of sharing dinner with Clara Hughes. She’s a Canadian cyclist and speed skater. She is tied as the Canadian with the most Olympic medals, she’s the only person ever to have won multiple medals in both the Winter and Summer Olympics, and she’s been an unwavering advocate for mental health awareness and the National Spokesperson for the Bell Let’s Talk Mental Health initiative. I could go on…
In her humility and kindness, she shared with me her own struggles with mental health. And while I paraphrase, she explained to me that “for so many people, mental health and addiction is a daily battle. It doesn’t go away, it’s always there, but it can be managed. For me, movement is my medicine.”
Maybe you can’t seek help, but an active lifestyle can at least be a first step to ultimately enabling you to lead a full and productive life. Men also struggle with anxiety and depression, and it’s a public health issue we can’t afford to hide in the shadows — so let’s bring it into the light. Movement is my medicine too, and tonight I’m going for a run.