“It takes more courage to reveal insecurities than to hide them, more strength to relate to people than to dominate them, more ‘manhood’ to abide by thought-out principles rather than blind reflex. Toughness is in the soul and spirit, not in muscles and an immature mind.”
– Alex Karras, athlete, actor, and author.
Having hit the nail on its head, Alex Karras has summed up the deepest fears and issues faced by men. The world is waking up to the mental health needs of men, which until now was dominated by patriarchal thoughts albeit which are now archaic. Patriarchy until now suited the male as it allowed him to play a dominant role in the society, and may even have furthered the thought that being an alpha male is preferred over all else. But with the world progressing so rapidly, by leaps and bounds, patriarchy is now bringing in its wake many subtle and less visible but real and at times severe problems of men’s vulnerabilities.
If one truly wants to address the issue of men’s mental health and work on improving the same, one may need to look at the strategies from three distinct aspects.
Strategies from the societal aspect
Over generations society has created certain stereotypes for men versus women leading to certain mindsets. Men may grow up with a sense of entitlement and typecasts such as being the superior sex, the preferred gender, the provider, the leader, decision maker, successful in career, go getter and the list goes on.
Then there are films which dole out dialogues like ‘Mard ko dard nahi hota’ leaving the men thinking that they should not feel pain. And emotional pain, definitely not! And if they do so, they should not be kind to themselves but critical! There is no room for self compassion and kindness here. But men too are humans, how can they not feel pain?
Society needs to change these mindsets and typecasts. But let us understand that society comprises of us! So it is up to us to ‘be the change’.
- Thus, the first and foremost strategy, if I may call it so, is to help our boys learn to be kind and compassionate to themselves. As a society we need to unlearn old paradigms no longer functional and make a paradigm shift. So we now need to learn that experiencing challenges, be it physical or emotional in life is inevitable so rather than getting angry or disappointed with oneself it is important to be gentle when undergoing a difficult situation. Do not ignore the pain or put yourself down with constant self-criticism. But understand that we cannot be or get what we want from life always. When we accept this truth with kindness and empathy, we experience more calmness and equanimity.
- The truth is that we all experience failure in life. We, especially our men folk, need to understand that we are imperfect and that failing is part of life. At times, we all are unable to fulfill our own expectations. We all fail ourselves, like failing an exam or not doing so well in a project allotted to us and we feel disappointed. Let us as a society make it ‘OK’ to fail, for everyone.
- Let us stop the clichés that men are not supposed to cry, and men have to be strong always. In fact, bring in new understandings, such as men too are human and emotions are natural to all human beings. They are what make us human.
- Society would include the entertainment industry too, which has a great say in creating and breaking moulds. So, let us try making movies, commercials and serials, which has content that sensitively highlights men’s mental health needs, shows men as humans and not as superman, talks about gender equality, breaks the stereotypical moulds and looks beyond the obvious.
- The media too plays an immensely huge role in our lives. Thus, if the media can showcase that men’s mental health needs are also to be addressed, if they can pave the path to remove the stigma and taboo from talking about mental health and more so of men, a whole new fresh thought process can be ushered in.
Strategies from the parental aspect
Societal stereotypes boil down to customs and methods adopted over generations in communities, cultures and clans in all daily living matters. In the past, the roles of men and women were clearly defined. The ‘grihastha’ (the householder man) was the provider of the family and the ‘grihani’ (the householder woman)] managed the home and family. Thus, together they used to run the ‘grihasthi’ (the household).
However over the last generation, we as parents have changed the parenting style towards our girls, and rightly so, wherein at least in the urban areas girls are educated, made financially independent and taught the regular, traditional life skills and household skills too. However, the vice versa is not adopted for boys. Thus, we parents are ourselves creating a huge gap between our boys and girls.
We have inadvertently made the ‘grihastha’ role of our boys defunct without giving them new skills to incorporate, making them handicapped and in fact creating a ‘crisis of purpose’. If a girl can manage her house, her children, earn and be financially independent, be the provider, then what is the role of a boy? Zilch!!
Sadly, it is observed that more and more marriages are failing because of the skewed responsibility sharing that is happening. But parents of boys are hardly understanding the huge role that they are playing in bringing these disastrous situations in their children’s lives.
- Please teach your boys household chores. Do not make them feel it is demeaning for a man to look after the household and children. Let them know how to cook and clean, take care of other household errands, and look after the children. Just like our girls, make them self sufficient too in every way.
- Do not handicap your boys by giving them a feeling of entitlement. This lowers their coping skills. And when life places them in difficult situations, they may resort to faulty coping styles such as alcohol addiction, violence etc., which actually are not coping mechanisms at all but highly detrimental actions creating further problems.
- Teach them to express their emotions and feelings in a healthy manner right from childhood. And please do stop saying “Stop crying, are you a girl to cry?” to your little boys. Let them cry if the situation requires that response. Crying in certain situations is cathartic and liberating.
- As parents, we will need to set realistic expectations for our boys. For example, if both partners are working, then both should share household responsibilities too.
- Make way for the ‘Ki and Ka’ concept where the woman is the bread winner and the man is the house-husband. If there is understanding between the partners, then it is perfectly fine to switch responsibilities. We, as a society or as parents, do not need to baulk at their decisions but need to welcome the change.
Strategies from the individual aspect
No matter how much society might change at the macro level or parents might change parenting styles, finally the change has to happen at the micro level, at the individual core. So, here are some strategies that would help men build their well being.
- Finding forgiveness: Treat yourself the way you would treat a best friend or loved one after they have made a mistake. Will you not forgive them? Most probably we all would. Do the same to yourself. Forgive yourself for the mistakes that you have made.
- Healthy self talk: Change your inner dialogues and self talk. If you are saying, I am a good father to my children, start saying I am a good person and hence I am able to be a good parent. Define yourself by who you are, don’t let your various roles define you.
- Understand common humanity: Look around objectively and with your heart. You will see that your life is just like others in many ways, because we all are human and we all suffer. We all have bad relationships, we all fall ill, we all fail in exams or projects, or competitions, we all are imperfect and inadequate. This is our shared human experience. Understand that this lies at the core.
- Learn to be non-judgmental: Observe your thoughts and emotions in a non-judgmental and open manner. Look at things as they are. Keep three words in mind, ‘look as is’, without adding any labels or any judgments, or any preconceived notions or prejudices. This helps build a more mature, calmer perspective.
- Be in the ‘here and now’: Don’t dwell in the past regrets or in the unknown future, which triggers anxiety. Learn to be in the present moment. Live now, fully.
- Garner support: Have a support system comprising of family and friends whom you can rely upon in tough times. Here I would like to add, develop ‘a shoulder to cry upon’ deep friendships not just ‘let’s go for a beer’ shallow friendships.
- Meditate: Learn meditation techniques that help beat stress, build composure and resilience.
- Don’t ignore the basics: Good diet, adequate sleep, regular exercise and a healthy lifestyle are not options, they are paramount.
- Seek help, if necessary: Sometimes, any one of us can require professional help if we are facing difficulties, which we think are stretching our coping resources and overwhelming us. It is ok to ask for help. Remember, it does not mean that we are weak; it just means that we are for real.
It is indeed time to change the narrative: Mard ko bhi dard hota hai!