We have come a long way – a very long way – from the damaging attitudes towards mental health that provoked my most ghastly apprehensions at the notion of getting treatment in the spring of 2016. But while it has become acceptable and fashionable to champion mental health as a worthy cause, we are quickly racing towards the “trap of the hashtags” where worthy causes rise, cycle, and fade with the seasons. I am not upset at this natural process of attention and indifference. I merely see the tunnel at the end of this light, a tunnel in which none of the pertinent progress and fleshing out of the concepts necessary for continued mainstream movement can fit. With them, key demographics can fall short of getting the proper attention, endangering our current awareness of being good for nothing. Mental illness is no respecter of persons, but humans are incapable of being so vastly noble. Are we inherently inadequate in our limited capacity to care? No. But it does require the right people to claim seats at the table to discuss what makes them, them.

In the spring of 2016, there was little recourse for my gloomy and diminished outlook. Two years of ‘sucking it up’ while understanding I had a serious problem had announced their end. It is difficult to say if I was suicidal. I suppose I didn’t consider wanting to die as much as no longer being able to hide. With the right delivery and charisma, negativity can be both cathartic and sexy. It was odd how on my darkest days I was more socially agile than on my more luminous ones. Unfortunately, such conversational finesse took a lot of energy. Experiencing joy was not an option. Masquerading a pleasant nature was burdensome. Did I call to speak with a therapist because I wanted to die? No. But I exhausted all resources to maintain the appearance of living. I had no idea what else to try. From 2016 to 2018, I was introduced to an array of options of care. Multiple therapists attempted to peek under the hood before I settled on someone that had the means to take me apart. I saw multiple psychiatrists, tried a handful of psychotropic medications, and learned the hard way which ones weren’t right for me (withdrawals from an anti-depressant are wildly underrated). In the middle of 2018, I began to claw my way back to stability. Standing over the rubble of recklessly strewn words and the ashes of relationships that couldn’t survive a major depressive episode, I elected to stay in therapy to continue sorting out what got me there in the first place. This may have been one of the best decisions I ever made. While there were things recovery could not salvage, I could finally take stock of where I was, and do my best to articulate where I didn’t want to see others go. In 2019, I began to speak about my experience, and an abundance of new realizations began to form.

"Did I call to speak with a therapist because I wanted to die? No. But I exhausted all resources to maintain the appearance of living. I had no idea what else to try."

Shortly after my first interview on mental health was released in September of 2019, I was jarred by a constant theme running through the feedback I received. I outlined in great detail much of what I’ve written about here already. Many were surprised that I was speaking so openly about mental health. I had worked hard to learn to write well and speak effectively. They were necessary skills to blend in among those who could function well with much less effort. But communication is a skill that can be honed by anyone (yes, even you). It was difficult to grasp what was so surprising to others. While others’ disbelief was a daunting obstacle to recovery at times, it had nothing to do with the running theme of bewilderment. Many were simply surprised to hear this story come from a man. This sounded absurd to me. I knew I was not the only man talking about mental health. There were plenty of YouTube channels, WordPress blogs, Instagram feeds etc. that brought a wealth of information and awareness to mental health by men. Not just any men, mind you. Men with serious credentials and experience in the field of psychology that, in my mind, dwarfed my recounting of experiences. What was so different about me? I pooled as many opinions as I could, trying to understand. The common answer maintained the theme that while many watchers had heard a male share something about mental health, they did not expect it to be conveyed by someone they considered masculine. This realization illuminated a problem that only we as men can fix.

Men need to talk about mental health. But we, by nature, are a silent lot. Are we afraid to address important things? No. But discussion forums I’ve witnessed seem handcuffed. I am not convinced that men are unable to talk deeply about mental health. In fact, I think we can, and should be great at it. But for starters, mental health discussions aren’t harsh enough. By day, I am a military weapons and combat skills instructor. We get trained on and train others on weapons safety. Be it rifles, handguns, or explosives, we hold nothing back. It is not uncommon for weapons or explosives safety training to include graphic videos of gunshot wounds or pictures of the extremely unfortunate consequences of failed attempts to detonate an explosive with one’s teeth. The stakes of taking the proper care of ourselves and each other are made clear. All of us have been shown in horrific detail, that death is the potential price for not handling a weapon or explosive with the proper care. In other contexts we see this too. Many awareness campaigns against drinking and driving show cars scorched and crushed like cans of soup from crashing at the hand of too many whiskies. Anti-smoking campaigns show black lungs and missing family members, sometimes going as far as putting graphic photos of diseased lungs right on the package. Yet for mental illnesses that claim hundreds of thousands of lives each year worldwide, we get men together and stress the importance of work-life balance, then encourage each other to talk with all the urgency of Petunia Night at a garden club. More times than not, we seem trapped within the informational phase of awareness. With the best of intentions we fail to realize that a slideshow will not cut it. The gap between what is at stake and what is prescribed is so vast that we’ve hardly attempted to understand how men process thoughts and emotions in relation to mental health, let alone how to help them wrestle with their darkest, most indecipherable feelings. We must address mental health with a brutality commensurate with its cost. We aren’t simply managing stress. We are discussing how not to blow our own brains out to be cleaned up off the wall while our body is distraughtly identified by our next of kin. Considering that most male suicides are carried out by firearm, this is not an outlandish scene. Neither is the reality of finding your father, brother, son, or friend in a blood-filled tub with both forearms slashed open and dried tears trailing down the sides of his eyes. Do those images make you uncomfortable? I really hope they do. Because for a demographic that makes up the vast majority of viewers of John Wick movies and Mafia films, it baffles me that we expect any less than this as our threshold of understanding.

"Yet for mental illnesses that claim hundreds of thousands of lives each year worldwide, we get men together and stress the importance of work-life balance, then encourage each other to talk with all the urgency of Petunia Night at a garden club."

This brings me to why mental health discussions are failing so many men, and leads me to the beginnings of a way forward. In discussing the importance of mental health, we fail to understand emotions from a perspective many men can see from. It is more common for experiences and expressions of emotion to begin with feeling the emotion itself rather than using it. These emotion driven methods of discussion are the norm, leaving men to sift through resources that were not made for them and will not effectively reach them. Not because no one cares, but because no one is actually talking to them. Attempts to remedy this have come in the form of myriad self-help mediums that while beneficial, just don’t go far enough. We have heard about “finding your why” and related maxims to a nauseating extent. We’ve turned these profound ideas into empty clichés. Further versions of phrases like this have been bastardized to justify and promote selfishness in the name of self-improvement.  A frequent response to this is to bemoan masculinity itself and chastise men for being “too weak and afraid” to be emotional. Thus, a mass lapse in communication is cloaked in shame. Men are told that the characteristics that make them human and serve as a cradle for meaning are not worth speaking to or helping. This inevitably shapes the message that men are not worth saving. It is here that I address us, as men that want to be our best, true, and complete selves, and charge us with moving us forward.

Moving forward, meaning to take up the “problem” of us ourselves and shaping future resolutions. Men typically do not process ideas based on emotion. This is not because men aren’t able to, but because we’ve been told how to do it in a language that does not register. Men are tool-based thinkers (no, not that tool). Tools, as in we initially see things and think about what the thing can be used for. We don’t worry about how something makes us feel before we think of how we can make sense of it. We categorize in boxes and organize accordingly. Therefore, emotions can be treated in kind. Emotions are the body’s reactions to our thoughts and are characterized by a cluster of physical reactions. They are not just ethereal and ineffable “feelings.” Emotions can be seen as things. Anger, for example, can be recognized by a rising heart rate, a burst of energy, narrowed attention and a flushed face. Anger can also be spread into sub-categories (irritation, jealousy, protection, etc.) that make it easier to understand. Once understood, it can be used to drive sound and logical decision making. The core of this concept is worth repeating and understanding deeply: emotions can be used as tools. The initial question doesn’t need to be ‘why do I feel this way?’ but instead can be ‘what can I do with this?’ For the example of anger, options can include asserting yourself and vocalizing your desires. Alternatively, you could let the anger go. Because we exist in roles and contexts, we can take our emotions and be decisive about how they serve the pursuit of best fulfilling our role, within our respective context. If I am angry with a subordinate at work, I can realistically employ a stern disposition to direct at the problem (not the subordinate, the problem). I am not haphazardly unleashing the anger but using it as a tool to impress urgency on the situation. If I am angry with a superior at work, my role changes, and with that change, a shift in strategy to best serve the context would be appropriate. The urgency impressed on my boss must be expressed with a specific tact that would not be effective with my subordinate. Still, the anger is something I can use to strategize the best way to express, if I deem it necessary to express at all.

While the example of anger hardly encompasses the realm of possibility in learning how to understand our emotions better, it speaks to the larger point that MEN CAN DO THIS. Gone should be the days where the inarticulate and emotionally inept man is the default perception of what is masculine. We are not imprisoned within our minds, we are endowed with the responsibility of learning its mechanics – our ­mechanics. We do not need to shun emotions as being beneath our pragmatic outlooks, and must adopt the courage necessary to confront our own selves, as brutally and unflinchingly as possible. The modern man must build on this foundation of awareness and make our own way. Gentlemen, we need to move forward. It is literally a matter of life and death.