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Collage by Yunuen Bonaparte. Photo by Nathan Dumlao.

I stood behind my grandmother a few years ago at my uncle’s wake. She was preparing to bury her eldest son, but if you didn’t know that, her body language might make you think she was waiting for a taxi.

It wasn’t that my grandmother was cold. She was a stoic woman with a fairly serene attitude about death.

At one point, the finality of the moment became overwhelming, and my vision blurred. When my grandmother heard me — a man — sniffle exactly once, she spun around and stared squarely into my misting eyes. She looked as aghast as if I’d suddenly blown a party horn.

“Is everything all right?” she asked rhetorically. The chagrin on her face was unambiguous. Any amount of weeping was clearly not all right.

Not having foreseen that crying at a wake would land as such a profound breach of etiquette, I didn’t know what to say. My tear ducts instantly unionized and went on strike. The solitary tear I’d been able to squeeze out before my grandmother’s intervention glistened forlornly on my cheek. My grandmother made a mirthless smile.

“Good,” she said, and turned around to face the casket again.

Think of that moment as an establishing shot. It sums up where we are in the gender script as far as what men are taught about feelings.

The love between my grandmother and I was fierce and self-evident. Still, that didn’t curtail her horror at a grown man’s naked display of human emotion.

In the nature versus nurture debate, the word nurture is meant to refer to the environment’s influence on human development, as opposed to the role our genes play. But nurturing is precisely the opposite of what happens to men and our capacities to feel and express emotion.

Of course, this can vary greatly depending on one’s family, location, and culture, but more often, we’re encouraged to stifle and repress our feelings than to develop a healthy awareness of them.

So, where does this leave men in the moment mental health is having?

A growing chorus of public figures have chimed in to a national dialogue on the subject over the past several years.

Top athletes like Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka made headlines this past summer by putting their mental health above their careers. And Demi Lovato, who has long been candid about their struggles with bipolar disorder, is the spokesperson for a campaign called “Be Vocal: Speak Up for Mental Health.”

These developments have certainly chipped away at the taboo. But does this moment also extend to men, for whom mental health remains a huge problem?

Now look, I love Audre Lorde. I rocked out (in the back) at the Bikini Kill reunion tour. So, of course, I’m reluctant to respond to any social issue by saying, “Oh, won’t anyone think of the men?”

In most cultural conversations, the fellas enjoy a surplus of airtime. But it’s clear that the mixed signals we get from society about how to think and act make for an uphill struggle on the mental wellness front.

Depression and suicide are among the leading causes of death in men, and yet we remain less likely to seek treatment than women.

In fact, data from an installment of the National Health Interview Survey shows that 9 percent of the men surveyed experienced daily symptoms of depression or anxiety, but only 1 in 3 of them took medication for these feelings, and only 1 in 4 spoke to a medical professional.

Our relative indifference to our health isn’t even unique to our emotional well-being. A report for the National Center for Health Statistics found that more than 1 in 5 men haven’t seen a health professional of any kind in over a year.

Despite this, Scott Thomsen, a 30-year-old writer from Los Angeles who has struggled with anxiety, believes that men have made significant inroads. This sentiment is echoed in Healthline’s October 2021 survey on men’s thoughts, feelings, and actions related to health and wellness.

“The biggest thing for me quite honestly is the mainstreaming of the language [about mental health],” Thomsen says. “Getting close to terms like depression and anxiety allowed me to much more honestly assess my own mental health.”

For Thomsen, the main challenge has been developing self-awareness about his anxiety. “Recognizing something for what it is, and recognizing it as somewhat normal, has allowed me to really do a better job of treating myself,” he adds.

Carlton, a Black, 37-year-old grocery manager who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder (and who didn’t want to use his last name), agrees. He recently relocated to the working class Boston neighborhood he grew up in, a place he remembers as mired in trauma that was rarely discussed.

The mental health moment has impacted his home turf, which he finds heartening.

“The language that they use now is a lot different,” he says. “Now a friend will talk about depression or anxiety. These are words that I never heard when I was younger.”

Still, the popularization of a working vocabulary for our internal vagaries is one thing. But being able to describe a problem doesn’t always lead to tending to it, Thomsen points out. In a best-case scenario, we might begin to see our mental health as an intuitive part of personal well-being.

“When I feel I haven’t been eating well, I go make myself a salad,” he says. “When I feel that I haven’t been outside enough, I go bird, I go surf, or I go golf. Mental health is still not there, in my mind.”

Thomsen attributes some of his reluctance to the way he was socialized.

He acknowledges that coming of age in an affluent, highly educated family in Newport Beach, California, was a blessing in many ways. But it also came with a host of expectations on how to act, and it didn’t lend itself to self-care.

“I was raised in a culture where weakness, especially as it related to mental health, was not spoken about,” he explains. “You could not be mentally weak. And if you were mentally weak, that just meant you weren’t going to play sports or you weren’t going to align with the ‘cool kids.’”

Much like I did, Thomsen learned to cloak his sensitivity and put on the brave face that gender norms demanded. Thomsen and I hail from different racial and economic backgrounds, but the moratorium on vulnerability is a through-line.

Even guys who overwhelmingly cohere with the masculine ideal are taught to believe that their manhood is always at risk or in deficit.

This contributes to what some experts call a “silent crisis” among men. So much as talking about mental health can feel like cause to have your “man card” revoked.

When men do seek treatment, finding the right fit with a therapist can be particularly challenging for people from certain demographics.

Dr. Christopher L. Bishop, a Washington, D.C.-based psychologist who specializes in male issues and forensic psychology, says he’s never had a shortage of male clients.

But Black male clients are underrepresented, and Bishop believes it’s because there aren’t enough Black male therapists (let alone Black therapists in general) to meet the demand.

“There’s a high need for African-American male clinicians and psychologists,” Bishop says, because Black men tend to be more comfortable being treated by other Black men, a theory some studies have supported.

“It’s a culture piece where they don’t feel that someone who is not the same cultural background as them could understand,” he says. “It’s also the climate that we’re in, with the killing of African-American males by law enforcement.”

There are signs, though, that the issue’s tectonics are shifting, however slowly.

NBA star Ben Simmons, who has played for the Philadelphia 76ers over the past 5 years, has yet to take the court this season, in part because he’s been mentally unprepared to perform.

His predicament is notable as a high-profile case of a male athlete’s mental wellness dominating the media landscape and water cooler debates.

Knowingly or not, Simmons has effectively ramrodded a de-objectification of the Black male athlete. (It’s extraordinary enough when Simone Biles does it — that received early outrage as it was — but for a renowned male athlete to claim this space is one taboo on top of another.)

Bishop thinks the normalization of mental health conversations in pop culture is having a trickle-down effect in at least one way.

Nowadays, “men aren’t secretive about seeking therapy. I think in the past, it was the case [that they were more secretive. But now] they’re open to saying, ‘I need help,’” he says.

Bishop sees this with all ages, not just adolescents. Young 20-somethings and professionals are seeking therapy, too, he says.

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If some social circles are considered to be hotbeds of toxic masculinity, then it stands to reason that others might act as a salve for it.

I met my friend Tim Garcia via the tight-knit POC punk scene in New York City. The first time I noticed him, we were both singing along with particular brio to a Fall Out Boy song that was playing over the venue’s PA between sets.

“Through some of my hardest times, I’ve definitely turned to emo music in particular,” Garcia, who is trans and suffers from depression, told me.

“I’ve always thought that Fall Out Boy songs were pretty good trans anthems because they’re about how it feels to be bad at masculinity and how it feels to be a ‘loser’ and not a fantastic, put-together, super tough man.”

Growing up in a Latinx family in the Bronx, mental health “was definitely not a conversation to be brought up. Even now, if I let my mom know I’m going to therapy or taking medication, she’ll be sad about it,” Garcia says. “Maybe she thinks she’s failed by having a child with depression.”

The 29-year-old computer drafter and drummer took matters into his own hands as a child. He sought out whatever mental health resources were available at his schools and took advantage of them without shame.

Garcia came out in middle school and began talk therapy soon after. He began taking medication during a particularly tough time in college.

“Going through life being trans, there’s something at every turn pretty much that impacts my mental health negatively,” says Garcia.

“There was just no denying that I was hurting and getting sick from everything that I was experiencing. So I think that I just didn’t want to continue to be sick.”

Members of the LGBTQIA+ community are thought to be at higher risk for depression and anxiety disorders. And trans people are almost 4 times as likely as cisgender folks to experience a mental health condition.

While Garcia believes that celebrities speaking out on mental wellness “does bring the conversation to people’s living rooms to an extent,” he’s quick to point out that they’re a little late to the party.

“[Bands like] Fall Out Boy reflected back to me the thoughts that I was having about not succeeding at masculinity [long before],” says Garcia, who became interested in punk and emo in high school.

“I definitely think being involved in a musical subculture at an early age made things different for me.” Punk continues to provide a space in which Garcia can be a “failure” at masculinity, which he’s thankful for.

The notion that men must “fail” by one antiquated standard in order to succeed by another is a clue to the collective way forward.

In my case, the terse moment at my uncle’s wake is just one of a lifetime of similar instances. If you disassembled masculinity, I believe you’d find that its constituent parts are things that directly inhibit examination of the psyche or healthy awareness of one’s emotions.

That’s probably why each time one of my loved ones went out of their way to tout temperance, they figured they were doing me a favor — but they were way off.

Now, a growing number of men are receptive to the burgeoning sea change that encourages us to cultivate our mental health. That task demands a substantial update to our gender software alongside it.

Social distancing continues to provide many of us with more time for introspection than we’re used to, and perhaps that’s an opportunity for change.

“Most people at some point have depressive moments. That happens,” says Carlton. “And it’s great we have a language to describe that [instead of], ‘Suck it up, be a man’… But I would like the conversation to progress — and not just stop here for the next 20 years.”


G’Ra Asim, a writer and musician, is an assistant professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis. His new book, “Boyz n the Void: A Mixtape to My Brother,” is available now via Beacon Press.