Despite all of the talk of mental health and awareness, I’ve come to conclude that our conversations around mental health are largely disingenuous. I’m looking at social media. I’m paying attention to people’s LinkedIn stories. I’m looking at the statistics. I’m watching the deeds and not the words.

I’m now convinced that mental health culture is now primarily perpetual virtue-signaling. For many, mental illness is simply a badge of identity. There is perceived virtue in victimhood. As such we’re more inclined not to propose concrete solutions, but to blast the population with feel-good slogans, and unproductive group discussions. We prefer to primarily commiserate and share painful experiences or stories. I saw it for ten years in the military – a microcosm of unfortunate wellness trajectories.

I understand why.

Negative emotions like sadness, self-pity, resentment, or anger, are just as enjoyable as positive emotions. The language of weakness, illness, and neurosis has become so integral to the way we communicate in the West, that nearly all of us think and speak this way in relation to ourselves and others. It’s a highly effective way to gain attention, receive social validation, and form social connections.

The downside of this language is its harmful effects on our collective senses of self-worth and capability. It’s harder for us to see ourselves as something more than just individuals at the mercy of our past experiences and our concrete tendencies. In other words, many of us struggle to see ourselves as capable of restructuring our lives—demons and all. Moreover, we fail to understand the process as something possibly inspiring.

As men, we get confusing messages. Sometimes, we’re told to open up. As soon as we do, however, we get whacked with a mallet and told to get back in our holes. As boys, we are told not to cry. As men, when we refuse to cry, we are called emotionally unavailable.

“As men, we get confusing messages. Sometimes, we’re told to open up. As soon as we do, however, we get whacked with a mallet and told to get back in our holes. As boys, we are told not to cry. As men, when we refuse to cry, we are called emotionally unavailable.”

The freedom to express the masculine is strictly monitored from an early stage. Education, for example, is dominated by women, and structured to reward quietness and obedience. Boys are expected to fit into this. When they don’t – as would be mostly unnatural for them to do – they are sedated into conformity. Out of those of us fortunate enough to have two parents in the home, many of us grow up with weak dads and/or domineering moms (especially black male children) which ill-equips us to deal with the world outside.

This is partly why modern society is condescending, disingenuous, and clumsy in its attempts to help men. For a long time, it has expected them to navigate the plane of life the way that females do. This underscores its ineffective attempts at addressing male-specific mental health treatment.

I’m sure there is a sizeable portion of men who receive quality help. But the voices of mental health that speak on behalf of men are few, as I’ve seen. Thus, a recent intriguing thought has gnawed itself into my mind.

This is where I confuse you a little bit.

You see, we talk about mental health issues as if they are anomalies. Why is Sean so down? Why is Jonathan so anxious all the time? Of course, these questions are necessary, for many obvious reasons.

But a more important question to me is: Why aren’t all men depressed, suicidal, and anxious? In this world, where men are seen as highly disposable, they take great risk by being in relationships, are much more likely to die of homicide, are more likely to be victims of violent crime, are more likely to be physically threatened, and are more likely to die from work-related incidents.

“But a more important question to me is: Why aren’t all men depressed, suicidal, and anxious”

Men, for all intents and purposes, are born useless. It is with age, and demonstration of: (1) skill, (2) the ability to provide, (3) the ability to protect, (4) to build, (5) to innovate, (6) to sustain, that proves their value. And such things require time.

It is why, statistically and categorically, men peak at 55; that’s when their income is at its highest. Before that, they reach peak sexual desirability by 50 according to a study by the journal Science Advances, also cited by NYT. By their mid-40’s, they start hitting their financial stride. By their mid-30’s, they begin to understand themselves more fully and sort things out. Because since their path to value requires time coupled with effort, all their hard work typically comes together later in life, if they are patient and diligent and take care of themselves. This arc of achievement and actualization, however, is underscored by a darker reality; the decades of pressure to produce and to produce continuously. A long period of time, where any mid-level to major event or condition can derail or delay one’s momentum.

One such factor is mental illness, which can be incredibly debilitating. Since men must constantly produce to maintain their value to society, it’s no wonder that when they are suffering, society becomes distant. So, it should come as no surprise that they respond in general by bottling things in, and suffering in silence.

To admit, as a man, that you’re suffering severe or even mild mental debilitation, is usually not interpreted as a noble show of vulnerability, but rather, as a warning of your depreciating value—no matter how much lip service society pays to the issue of mental health. You’re treated like a publicly traded company—your stock is being constantly assessed. Yet under this pressure, you are expected to navigate your perils and setbacks, and carry your burdens with unfailing composure.

“To admit, as a man, that you’re suffering severe or even mild mental debilitation, is usually not interpreted as a noble show of vulnerability, but rather, as a warning of your depreciating value”

My Christian faith has forged my worldview in the light of war and conflict. The Bible is filled with fights. From Abraham down to King David, men of God have waged violent campaigns to subjugate the enemies of God and protect their inheritance. Even the Christian struggle against “the flesh” is framed as a crusade (it is our greatest battle). We are urged time and again to “fight the good fight” for eternal life. To wear the armor of God against the day of evil (read trouble or trial).

With that said, I offer three exhortations.

The first one is to see yourself as a warrior, or gladiator, in an arena or battlefield. Mental illness, as I see it, is not simply just a state. I’m in constant danger of defeat from chronic anger, despair, frustration, sadness, and depression, which threaten to destroy me by rendering me fruitless and miserable.

There’s a daily struggle for supremacy over these realities, on the bloody stage that is my mind. I do not pick the contestants, but I’m prepared for them. I’ve sharpened my sword (my habits) and calibrated my armor (my attitudes and principles) in order to best position myself to best my opponents (self-defeating attitudes). I’ve rehearsed and fine-tuned my battle strategies with my trainer (a mentor, therapist, coach, confidante, etc).

It also means that, no matter how much endorsement I’ve received from my trainer, it’s my fight. It’s often times a lonely one. I’m the primary object of confidence for my own survival. Often, there is none beside me.

Masculinity is self-mastery—the greatest form of conquest. Conflict and struggle are effective ways for us to forge a robust sense of meaning in our lives. And life grants us major rewards for that. A happier social life, a longer life, a better sense of belonging to your group, a healthier sense of humor, and so on.

I’m not calling for a constantly combative posture. What I mean is, the more mental health battles you win, the less of those specific ones you have to fight long-term, and the longer the seasons of peace will be. Some battles are harder than others, like trauma, which in all fairness can be nearly impossible for many to engage. So here is my disclaimer: all of these exhortations are limited in their application.

There will always be fights that must be fought. Just do your best and fight the ones you can, no matter how small. Take any victory you can get.

We love the hero’s path to glory, and as children there are plenty of examples we grew up with. Be they in movies, books, media, even sports.

Yet when you re-watch or re-read these stories, notice the mental adversities those heroes faced. The loneliness they suffered. When they were down, nearly no one offered them a hand. Often times, they were misunderstood. They dealt with fears and doubts, and temptations of self-pity. No one showed up with a perfectly tailored plan and promised to walk them through every step of the way. And yet, they overcame. In a way, it’s similar for men.

Accepting the world for what it is, is a painful pill to swallow, but it’s essential to a healthier mind. Calibrate it to embrace and understand that great benefits are in store. Don’t simply avoid the circumstances and moments which threaten to derail you. Face them, like a warrior. Why? Because you have something to protect. It is why we fight. And you’re in the fight for your mental life; your sense of joy and worth, your clarity of thought, your inner peace, your self-confidence. To fight is to assert yourself in existence. It is to say, “I am here. And I’m not going anywhere as far as I can help it.”

It won’t wear you out. Quite the opposite. You will learn to reject burdens you’re not meant to carry. You will discern between which battles are yours, and which are not. Because you will grow more efficient and wiser the more battles you consciously face.

I speak from both personal and vicarious experience.

Be unapologetic about your struggles, and then strive to advance. It’ll most likely be lonely in many parts of that walk. Embrace that. You have to fight regardless, if you want the outcomes that you say you want, and—equally important—to enjoy them.

The second exhortation is to work on your body if you’re not already doing so. Physical training makes you feel less susceptible to physical dangers, and more capable of confronting them. This changes something in you. It’s the simplest and fastest way to a foundation for overcoming some of your mental health woes. It is the essence of confidence—that awareness of acquired skills, traits, or strengths, forged through repetition and deliberate practice to enable one to meet a particular challenge.

Notice it or not, you will walk, talk and think differently. Don’t underestimate this! If you suffer chronic mental health issues and are already applying this exhortation, know this: your overall condition would almost certainly be worse if you didn’t.

The third exhortation is to be okay with the idea of constantly hiring and firing your therapist. See a therapist as your employee. If you have an employee who isn’t helping you move forward, you would fire them. So why wouldn’t you fire someone you’re paying to help you heal or productively manage your illness or trauma? Chances are you may have to cycle through a number of therapists to find the right one for you. It will feel awkward, but be unapologetic.

Because here’s the thing: you have a very short amount of time to live your life.

Which means whatever needle needs to move, whatever breakthrough needs to happen, should ideally happen as soon as possible. I’m not talking about shortcuts. Things take time. If an effective process can “reasonably” yield results in three years, then three years should be the expectation. That’s what I mean by “as soon as possible.” You don’t wait for ten years before you start reconsidering.

Applying this principle saves more time and mitigates future frustration. It also protects your wallet. The most important thing, however, is that it fosters a sense of radical control over your mental health journey, which in and of itself is likely to improve it. This is a critical mindset because it helps instill a sense of direction towards your desired goal, which means improvements are inevitably quicker. With that, my third exhortation is over.

I understand that life is grim. That existence is miserable. That injuries will happen. That dangers are inevitable. But the way I see it, if you’re alive, I think you owe these two things to yourself: One, to check or mitigate the impact of adverse circumstances that threaten to plunge your mental health into a dark place, and keep you there. And Two, to be proactive in the healing process of whatever it is you need healing in.

Because to live, and to live proactively, is partly—if not largely—to do your best in sifting through all the muck of life and grasping the (realistically) ideal experience of your condition. As far as it is up to you. To deny this is to deny your nature. As men we seek inner peace, stability, joy, fulfillment, loyalty, and respect for a reason. Because these elements are the ideal elements of the masculine frame.