Recognising mental illness among men in Malaysia is long overdue. Social expectations of masculinity shape the way boys are brought up and the way men behave. We become conditioned to believe that men must be strong, that fathers are the breadwinners, and that “boys will be boys”. These gender stereotypes shape our expectations of how men should behave and inevitably lead us to treat them in ways that fulfil our expectations in what is known as a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The assumption for men to be strong is for them to never show weakness. Oftentimes, this expectation means that men should not face any problems because to have any problems is to not be strong enough to “tough it out”. Popular phrases like “Real men don’t cry” and teasing remarks of boys who cry behaving like “little girls” reflect this expectation. For our fathers, the need to always be a pillar of strength and a figure to look up to carry a burden that many of us never considered. When men feel none of that as fathers, they don’t want to admit it or seek help. This may have significant effects on the family and relationships.
A study published by the American Journal of Men’s Health highlights how popular beliefs about masculinity actively deter men from forming expressive relationships with other men, primarily because such social connections were viewed as “unmasculine”. To express their feelings and personal problems felt awkward and almost like a “taboo” against their concept of being masculine. Being “masculine” may be about shaping men to be strong, but it also denies them their right to reach out for help without fear of being humiliated leading to growing numbers of mental illnesses among men in Malaysia.
Evidence shows that the importance of a father’s mental health goes beyond that of their own well-being but affects that of their children’s mental health as well as the stability of the family. For fathers who experience mental illness, their children are at a higher risk of behavioural and emotional difficulties. Research shows that this is often the case because the amount of suffering experienced by the father may mean being less consistent in showing warmth and affection towards their children. The same can be said for their partners as well.
When someone in our family has a mental illness, it can cause stress and worry for everyone. They believe that having a mental illness is an issue experienced solely by the individual and is harmful. It ignores the well-being of the people that also struggle with supporting their partners and children. To thrive, it is important that we also understand and support our father’s well-being. Supporting the mental health needs of the men in our families, of men everywhere, is crucial to improving their health.
In June as we celebrate fathers everywhere, let’s take a moment to start taking notice of the men in our lives. Caring for the mental health of the men in our lives could be through small gestures as simple as asking how they are and how they feel. Sure, fathers may not be very expressive from the get-go, but simply checking in often can remind them that you’re there for them. If your father is among the group of dads that tend to look for information online rather than consulting professionals, buy a self-help book. “Feeling Good” by David D. Burns, M. D, is a book that addresses issues like depression through a strategic perspective rather than an emotional one which may appeal more to men.