Men’s Mental Health Challenges in the COVID-19 Era
“Will I get it? Will someone I love get it? Will one of us die? When will it end?”
I’m guessing that few people in the world had ever heard about COVID-19 until a few months ago. Now everyone has heard and most of us are scared. We ask ourselves, “Will I get it? Will someone I love get it? Will one of us die? When will it end?”
There really are two pandemics we’re dealing with. First, is the spread of the virus and its impact on our physical health. Second, is the spread of the fear and panic and its impact on our mental health. For me, both of these fears are up close and personal. I’m in the high-risk group for getting the virus, getting sick, and dying:
- I’m older (age 76).
- I’ve had chronic lung problems most of my life.
- I’m a man.
I’m also in the high-risk group for having mental and emotional problems associated with COVID-19.
- I’ve suffered from depression all my life.
- I worry a lot and suffer from anxiety.
- When I get stressed, I get angry, which often pushes away those I need for emotional support.
Let me say at the outset that we can’t separate physical health from mental health. When I’m down with the flu, I’m also often sad and depressed. When I’m dealing with anxiety, anger, and depression, my physical health suffers as well.
In addressing the risks associated with COVID-19, most people are aware that older people and those with other health problems are more likely to become sicker and die if they contract the virus. However, fewer people seem to be aware that being male seems to put us at higher risk.
White House coronavirus coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx recently pointed out this “concerning trend” after looking at statistics in Italy, where footage of hospital intensive care units showed bed after bed of older men breathing with the help of ventilators. “The mortality in males seems to be twice that of females in every age group,” said Dr. Birx.
When Italy recently offered statistics on deaths, they noted that 28% of the deaths were female, while 72% of those who had died were men, according to a report by the BBC. One study put the number even higher, with men making up 80% of people who had died of COVID-19 in Italy.
I’ve been helping men improve their mental health for fifty years now. Well, even longer when I remember my father who took an overdose of sleeping pills when I was five years old when his depression intensified because he was unable to make a living supporting this family. Here were the words he wrote in his journal just days prior to overdosing and being committed to Camarillo State Mental Hospital, north of our home in Los Angeles.
October 30th: Faster, faster, faster, I walk. I plug away looking for work, anything to support my family. I try, try, try, try, try. I always try and never stop.
November 2nd: A hundred failures, an endless number of failures, until now, my confidence, my hope, my belief in myself, has run completely out. Middle aged, I stand and gaze ahead, numb, confused, and desperately worried. All around me I see the young in spirit, the young in heart, with ten times my confidence, twice my youth, ten times my fervor, twice my education.
I see them all, a whole army of them, battering at the same doors I’m battering, trying in the same field I’m trying. Yes, on a Sunday morning in early November, my hope and my life stream are both running desperately low, so low, so stagnant, that I hold my breath in fear, believing that the dark, blank curtain is about to descend.
In addition to being depressed, my father was also angry. His anger pushed my mother away emotionally and he kept his pain bottled up inside. He survived the suicide attempt, but our lives were never the same. I went with my uncle every week to visit my father, but he got worse and worse. I’m sure my decision to dedicate my life to helping men and their families deal with these issues began during the months I visited my father and was unable to help him.
We know now that the suicide rate for men is 3 to 18 times higher than it is for women and it increases with age. The current crisis not only impacts men’s physical and emotional health but it interferes with men’s ability to work and to love, the two cornerstones, I believe, of men’s physical and emotional health.
There is hope on the horizon. The bad news is that the COVID-19 virus has spread throughout the world. The good news is that there are millions of men and women that are working to develop a vaccine and find treatments that can help those who get sick. There are also more and more programs dedicated to helping men and the families who love them.
Here are some things I’ve found to be important in addressing men’s mental health.
1. Men have an aversion anything “mental.”
I grew up with all the stereotypes of people who had “mental problems:”
- Looney tunes
Although the stereotypes impact women and men, men are particularly sensitive to anything that implies they are “less than a man” or have a problem they can’t control.
Solution: I’ve learned that “mental problems” are as common and treatable as physical problems. It’s manly to acknowledge what’s going on inside me. I felt free when I began talking about my own depression and anxiety. And so have millions of other men including Dwayne “the rock” Johnson, Trevor Noah, Brad Pitt, Bruce Springsteen, and Terry Bradshaw, to name a few. Talk about your feelings. The truth will set you free.
2. Men are taught we must be tough and never show weakness.
This is part of the “man-box” culture so many of us grew up in and I discuss in my new book, 12 Rules for Good Men. We are taught that real men don’t acknowledge pain, physical or mental. I remember a cartoon. A man and woman are sitting across from each other. The woman sticks a fork into the bridge of the man’s nose. He sits impassively as though nothing has happened. The caption reads, “That’s what I like about you Louie, you’re tough.”
Solution: Denying our pain and being unfeeling when we are hurt or afraid is not a sign of manly strength. It’s a kind of masochism where strength is measured by how much pain we can carry without acknowledging it. Pain is a signal that something is wrong. Let it out. Tell the truth. Be kind to ourselves.
3. When men are depressed, we often cover our unhappiness with irritability and anger.
There’s a quote by comedian Elayne Boosler who captures a truth about men’s health. “When women are depressed, they eat or go shopping,” she says. “Men invade another country.” I might add, or they yell at their wives and children or engage in risky and harmful behaviors that hurt themselves.
Solution: Don’t let anger harm yourself and your family. I realized I was angry all my life and a lot of the anger came out when I was really stressed, depressed, and unhappy. I finally learned to deal with my anger more effectively, learned to help others, and wrote a best-selling book, The Irritable Male Syndrome: Understanding and Managing the 4 Key Causes of Depression and Aggression. If this is an issue for you or a family member, check it out.
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