Rahul has been spending three hours at the gym everyday for the last four years to achieve ‘the best body.’ However, as he looks at himself in the mirror he hates what he sees. He thinks that his biceps are still not big enough and that his chest is not broad enough.
Recently, he has started with a heavy dose of health supplements. Throughout the day he keeps ruminating about the lack in his body and ways of overcoming it. His academic performance and social interaction have markedly declined as a result.
Man might be an attractive ideal for a few unconventional ones but the ubiquitous image of the Indian society by and large is still the omnipotent masculine man. The drive to achieve masculinity has pervaded almost all stages and spheres of life.
There are male children putting in huge efforts to make exceptional and staggering achievements at school, young boys settling minor conflicts with escalating displays of violence and aggression, adolescents popping steroids and pumping iron at the gym to get the perfect body, young professionals working round the clock to come to the top, young men driving flashy cars, middle aged men having extramarital affairs with young women to deny the fact that they are getting older and so on.
The various manifestations of the drive to be more and more masculine affect the mental health of the men in two broad ways. Firstly, they create a huge stress on the minds of men as they are always gasping for an elusive perfect state of omnipotence that they must reach. However, as this state is a fantasy far removed from reality no matter whatever they do they always feel small and short of this ideal.
The result is pain, frustration, sadness, anger and a gamut of mental illnesses. Secondly, the intense desire to be strong and powerful makes a huge majority of men uncomfortable with many normal feelings such as pain and sadness as they feel that these emotions would make them appear effeminate. Therefore men often refuse to acknowledge and suppress these normal feelings in them and this causes great mental distress. This distress may get expressed in indirect forms such as display of violence and use of addictive substances.
Men’s mental health problems tend to remain underground. Even when men recognize these issues they tend to be extremely reluctant to take help as seeking help arouses the notion that one is weak and dependent which challenges the image of the tough and resilient male which is idealized by the Indian society.
While enough has been said about the privileges that boys and men get in the Indian society little attention has been paid to the stress and pressure they experience. Boys realize early that they have to choose a career that would culminate in a well-paying and stable job. Many adolescent boys renounce areas of their interest and try their best to fit into mainstream careers to fulfill this expectation. This leads to a lack of interest in what they do, impairs their work pleasure and performance and makes them depressed.
Sanjeev, a 52-year-old man came for psychotherapy as he ‘was fed up with everything and did not feel like continuing with his work.’ After a few sessions it became apparent that he was never happy joining his family business but wished to be a writer and gave this up as his family did not sanction it. For 30 long years of his life he was in a career that he detested. Currently, he feels that there is no aim and purpose left in his life and that he is leading a mechanical existence.
Marriage is another very important event in the life of a man. It adds to his psychological and social status that now he is grown up, responsible, resourceful and stable. However, along with this comes an implicit expectation that he will maintain his job and become the main breadwinner of the family. He is required to extend financial support and resources to his wife, parents and children. For some men, the cultural expectation to perform excellently in this role can be very challenging. Consider the case of Sohan who got married to a girl coming from a high status family. Right from the time of the engagement he began to fear that would he be able to fulfill the wishes and demands of his would-be wife. He had a sense that it was an extremely daunting task and he would come out to be incompetent. As a result he had a succession of panic attacks but he did not share this problem with anyone as he felt that they will make fun.
Three years into the marriage and Sohan has been working really hard and is quite successful. However, despite this success the fear and panic attacks refuse to leave him. It took a lot of effort on his part to come for counseling and in the initial session he did not talk about this concern owing to feelings of deep shame.
Men just like women are also susceptible to various psychological disorders. Many boys get abused as children and this has a lasting traumatic impact on their personality and gender identity. A majority of this is never reported as the boys or young men feel extremely ashamed about it. Depression remains under-diagnosed in men as despite suffering from it men report fewer symptoms of depression as compared to women. Many depressed men hide their depression by getting addicted to alcohol or escape the pain by committing suicide. As compared to women, men are more likely to use abuse and be dependent on substances like alcohol and drugs. Body image dissatisfaction is becoming increasingly common in men as they wish to get the ‘ideal body.’
Research and clinical studies have indicated that in comparison to older women, older men are likely to have a greater share of undiagnosed psychological problems. After playing a dominant role as the head of the family throughout their lives, at old age men have to renounce this position to their younger generation. This process of transition is very difficult for many and it makes them feel that they have lost their power, masculinity and self-esteem. Loss of physical strength and medical problems make these men feel weak and dependent. As throughout their lives they have learnt to disavow these feelings it is a phenomenal task for them to accept and live with these emotions.
Just like women, men also have their share of mental health problems but due to the negative connotations of ‘weakness’ and ‘dependency’ they are not comfortable expressing them and seeking help. Raghav could sense that he was feeling extremely low after the termination of his romantic relationship and that the distress was affecting his personal, social and occupational functioning. However, he denied himself professional help thinking that it would imply that he is weak, has poor self-control and is unable to solve his problems by himself. His business collapsed and he started feeling suicidal and it was then that his friend rushed him to a hospital. As parents, wives, friends and children therefore it is extremely vital to give them the space to express their emotions, problems and ‘weak parts’ fully without being dismissive, judgmental or critical. Men also need to acknowledge that it is perfectly human to feel scared, weak and low and if they have problems it is better to seek help from others.