A hospital room decorated in blue balloons, onesies declaring, “Mama’s Boy,” and adoration from nurses and family members alike: that is a typical welcome scene for a newborn baby boy in the United States. Those first days are often filled with attention, affection, and soothing words for the streams of tears that typify babyhood. In those first days, girls and boys are very much the same. They are free to express pain, fear, and surprise. Parents scramble to learn everything they can to create the most loving, supportive home for their new child. But in the days and years that follow, something changes.
While boys start out as emotive and expressive as girls in the early years, by age 2 they are less so. Injuries are met with less sympathy, encouragement to toughen up, and the not so subtle message that expressing feelings is anything but okay. Between the ages of 4 and 6, boys register their emotions on their faces less than girls do, and as elementary school wanes into the tumultuous prepubescent years, boys are unlikely to ask for help to resolve conflicts with their peers. In puberty, we see a surge of reported depression in girls, but not in boys. While biological arguments have been made, ranging from fluctuating hormones in women and even arguments regarding male and female brain chemistry, the scientific results are that girls and boys are not that different from one another emotionally. Culturally speaking, however, they are on much different playing fields.
By the time they reach adulthood, men have often stopped talking about feelings, fears, struggles and especially emotional pain altogether. Statistics show that in the United States, 1 in every 4 women will be diagnosed with depression, while only 1 in every 10 men will be. Is it that women struggle with mental illness more than men? The news headlines everyday seem to tell otherwise. While the rate of depression treatment for women is much higher, the suicide rate is staggeringly opposite. In America, 8 out of every 10 suicides is carried out by a man. From the looks of it, the male and female population both feel depressed, but only half actually talk about it.
Popular iconic characters like Clint Eastwood have characterized the American man as stoic, fearless, and able to handle anything that comes his way. Culture reinforces this from toddler-hood through adulthood, creating less space for men to express their deepest feelings, and opening up the door to the downward spiral that leads to violence, suicide, and addiction. These trends are male dominated, leading many to blame evolutionary adaptations or testosterone as the creator of all aggressive, murderous tendencies. Does this tell the whole story? We know that women can be aggressive, violent, and even psychotic. The numbers tell us that women are at the very least much sadder than men, and should be killing themselves at more than twice the rate of men.
But let’s face it. That is not what is happening. Men are carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders, a pressure to be the best, the strongest, the toughest, and most importantly, a pressure to never show any feelings about it. And it’s killing them.
Little boys may stop crying as much as girls, hide their feelings from the hostile world around them, and avoid the shame of telling on a bully that is destroying them from the inside out in school, but those feelings do not go away. They remain buried, sometimes rehashed decades later in a stranger’s office as a man seeks to find out why he is so angry, and sometimes numbed through addiction, constant work, or even violence. There is a silent epidemic that plagues our society, and it is that we have silenced men. We have told them that to be strong they must not feel, to overcome they must bear a burden alone, and that even when pain is threatening to rip their heart open, they must never, ever show it.
In the face of mass shootings and discussions on mental illness in this country, there must be a focus on the truth that lays before us. Men commit these acts, not women. In fact, men are responsible for over 90 percent of the world’s violence, not women. Men are more likely to kill themselves than women, and men are unlikely to tell anyone about deep, agonizing emotional pain until it’s too late.
As we have fought to create a safe space for women to be leaders, fierce, independent and strong, we have left behind generations of men who remain largely voiceless in their emotions. Men are killing themselves. Isn’t there something we can do about it? Maybe when boy’s tears are welcomed, when their fears are acknowledged, and their emotions allowed to be, we will see a healthier generation of men. Maybe it won’t be as hard for those boys to ask for help, cry in front of their friends and family, or see a therapist. Maybe we can help open up room for men to turn away from violence, lay down their burdens, and find healing.
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Writer, Mother, Student, Friend