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Gen Zen: Why we need to talk more about men’s mental health

Gen Zen: Why we need to talk more about men’s mental health


SINGAPORE — During his teens, Viaano Spruyt went through bouts of severe anxiety, and no one knew about it. He tried seeking help from his local doctor, but he made sure his parents and friends were none the wiser about what he was going through. 

“Growing up as a Singaporean, you have been conditioned from a young age by everyone around you that if you talk about your struggles, as a man and as a person, it is a sign of weakness,” said the 26-year-old founder of Huddleverse, an app where users share their mental health experiences.

Even though Mr Kristian-Marc James Paul was formally diagnosed with body dysmorphia in 2015, he had been struggling for years with eating disorders and having deep insecurities about his body since the age of 10.

Body dysmorphia is a mental health condition where a person spends a lot of time worrying about flaws in their appearance. 

“I had internalised about what exactly an ideal man looks like, or what an ideal male body looks like and what I should be aspiring towards,” said Mr Paul, 29, who works in diversity and inclusion. 

He was wrapped up in these crushing standards of what a man should look like – often musclebound and a paragon of strength.

He was “nowhere close to attaining these ideals”, and it stirred up more anxiety and stress and exacerbated his body dysmorphia.

Mr Paul has since sought help in the form of therapy and medication. While it has helped, it is still an ongoing journey with his mental health.

“I still get anxiety about what my body looks like, but I am now able to manage it better, or I’m able to understand the discomfort more,” he said.

The Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) said 476 suicides were reported in Singapore last year, the highest number in more than 20 years. Notably, of the 476 suicides, 317 were men.

Suicide remained the leading cause of death for youths aged 10 to 29 for the fourth consecutive year in 2022 – about a third of all deaths in this age group were suicides. 

Globally, male suicide deaths have consistently outnumbered female suicide deaths. Research has shown that several potential factors can contribute to the higher rate, including societal expectations and mental health stigma, added SOS.

TODAY looks at the pressures and expectations men carry on their shoulders, and how they can seek help with their mental health struggles.

PRESSURE OF MANNING UP 

Historically, men have often been seen as the providers and protectors. While this is true, those rigid definitions can be harmful.

“We have to be strong and we have to look a certain way — with muscles. You have to be able to carry stuff and earn lots of money,” said Mr Ghazali Muzakir, a 37-year-old applied theatre practitioner-educator and founder of wellness group SG male allyship.

He said that while men want to be vulnerable and share their feelings, they often feel like they are not “allowed to” or they don’t know how to.

He remembers when he was sharing his frustrations with his previous partner during a particularly stressful period of his life, and they said to him, “Oh, this side of you is really not sexy. It’s really not attractive.” 

“I said, ‘okay,’ and I just suppressed my feelings,” said Mr Ghazali. “I felt so lonely.” 

He added that sometimes it’s these messages that perpetuate harmful stereotypes of what a man should look like or how he should act. 

Mr Ghazali recalled how a woman mentioned that his shoulders weren’t “big enough”, and that’s why he was still single — that comment sent Mr Ghazali straight to the gym to try to get bigger shoulders.

WHY MEN RESIST GETTING HELP

Perceptions of what a man should be have inadvertently left little space for men to show vulnerability. 

“One of the biggest issues that men face is the expectation that they need to be emotionally resilient at all times and the belief that resorting to mental health services may be seen as a sign of weakness,” said Ms Anita Krishan Shankar, a counsellor of Alliance Counselling. 

“Society has conditioned us to believe that men should not show vulnerability. This is problematic, as it prevents men from talking about their mental health challenges, as well as from reaching out for professional help.”

Mr Paul does not think that men are the “most emotionally literate people”. He pointed out that the “muscle for emotional vulnerability” for men is not usually developed in male friendships or social circles. 

Mr Hafeez Hassan, a 40-year-old dancer, choreographer and functional rehab specialist, agrees.

“It’s very hard for men in Singapore to ask for help or to share what saddens us. Sometimes, we are sad, but we don’t want to say why; we just want to be angry. Because being angry is the highway ticket towards expressing ourselves,” he said.

“Also, nobody (in our life) has done that before; our fathers didn’t do that, and our uncles didn’t do that. So we don’t know. We don’t know what’s normal.”

Mr Hafeez founded Brother’s Circle in 2021 as a safe space for men to gather and feel, rather than rationalise, the world around them. 

“A lot of times, men perceive things through analysing and they forget how to feel,” said Mr Hafeez, adding that most men in Singapore find it hard to express themselves emotionally and are often preoccupied with productivity and making money.

“That’s how most men channel their masculinity towards becoming an economically successful man. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s only wrong when it is off balance.”

For Mr Spruyt, speaking about mental health issues already carries a stigma of “being crazy”. Coming from a man, the stigma is two-fold.

“So when it did happen to me, of course, I was not going to tell anyone,” said Mr Spruyt, who attended an all-boys school.

Mr Chirag Agarwal, the co-founder and chief growth officer of local counselling service Talk Your Heart Out, said that men often “don’t have the awareness or vocabulary” to discuss their mental health.

“Unlike women who tend to be more open and vulnerable with friends, family and colleagues about how they are feeling, men have no practice talking about their mental health,” he said.

PRACTISING VULNERABILITY AND REACHING OUT 

To help men come forward and feel safe to share their problems, society must challenge some of its stereotypes around expectations of men, said Ms Shankar.  

If one suspects that a male friend or family member is struggling, approach them non-judgementally with empathy and provide a safe space for them to talk about it.

“Encourage them to reach out for professional services if necessary and, above all, normalise it and let them know that it is okay for them to feel what they are feeling,” Ms Shankar said.

She believes that as long as that first step is taken, most men’s mental health issues can be resolved.

If the struggle results in an inability to function in daily life activities, reaching out to a professional would be a good idea.  

“We all struggle from time to time, what’s critical is to ask for help as soon as possible to ensure a smooth recovery,” said Ms Shankar.

During Mr Hafeez’s Brother’s Circle sessions, the most stoic men have been seen to shed a few tears, which is all part and parcel of the experience, he said. 

Mr Paul has been part of several dialogues discussing masculinity.

“I think practising vulnerability and being a role model is indeed very powerful,” he said.



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