The many myths and misunderstandings of MENtal health
Deena Kara Shaffer
“Mental health” is a phrase that still makes many want to cringe, hide, or push away altogether. Stigmas and discomfort abound. So, too, do many myths and misunderstandings about what mental health really means. And what it means for those who identify as men.
Dr. Jesmen Mendoza, psychologist, defines mental health as “the feeling of having capacity to respond to stressors and struggles.”
Josh Gitalis, clinical nutritionist and functional medicine practitioner, describes mental health as the “cultivation of resilience and skills to thrive through the challenges of life.”
Daryl Vineberg, registered psychotherapist, believes that mental health is actually a misnomer, since what is usually meant is, quite simply, “emotional well-being, as in, how a person is doing in their professional and personal lives.”
“Mental health is inherently a taboo topic, and I think even more so with men,” says Gitalis. He believes societal messaging depicting unattainable stoicism is in part to blame. This, in turn, makes it difficult for men to seek health-related help. “Unfortunately,” adds Gitalis, “this sets up many men to suffer in silence.”
Vineberg views differences men experience around mental health as stemming from “how men have been socialized: what it is to be a man in this society, what men are ‘allowed’ to feel or not feel, what men can express or not express.”
“Research indicates that men experience mental health difficulties differently from women,” says Mendoza. “Quite often, I may see men struggle more with alcohol and substance use, expressions of anger, and violence.” He adds that men who perceive it to be emasculating to request support may not seek and access the help they need.
Vineberg emphasises the importance of men’s emotional, and holistic, well-being for being able to “fully express their sexuality, accept and safely express their masculinity, feel difficult feelings, and communicate their own truth,” as well as to embrace the fullness of their gifts, including sensitivity, intuition, and creativity.
“There’s still a pervasive belief that people are supposed to have it all figured out,” says Vineberg, “and to not need to reach out, to not need connection.” He adds that “there’s evidence it’s changing. Think of Carey Price, the Montreal Canadiens’ star goalie who last fall voluntarily entered the NHL player assistance program for a month. That kind of thing was unheard of 10 years ago.”
Gitalis adds, “The most important thing, when it comes to mental health, is to not make any assumptions, and to talk about everything openly. Once an issue has been named, it can then be tamed.”
“Traditional gender norms would have men believe they should be self-reliant,” points out Mendoza, “but we are social beings, and self-reliance is incompatible with being in community with one another.” Instead of impermeable independence, Mendoza encourages men, and all of us, to find community, cooperation, and mutuality.
“Allowing boys to feel their feelings,” says Vineberg, “and not make them bad or wrong for having them,” is the way to begin a men’s mental health culture change. This, he says, means that dads and uncles, teachers and coaches, grandfathers and mentors themselves have to lean into the fullness of their feelings.
“From aggression to tenderness,” says Veinberg, “boys and men need to learn how to communicate about their emotions, and how to ask for what they need. And to be accepted and supported when they do.”
Mendoza offers this analogy: “If you have legal problems, you would consult with a lawyer, just as, if you have financial questions, you would consult with an accountant.” Similarly, he points out, if one is struggling with emotional well-being, it can be very useful to connect with a mental health professional.
“One of the best interventions for improving and maintaining mental health,” stresses Gitalis, “is exercise. It increases natural mood-boosting hormones like endorphins. One study showed that regular exercise was as effective as medications and psychotherapy.”
Mendoza makes clear that “positive help-seeking attitudes and health-seeking behaviours assist men in having healthy emotional states.” Some recommendations from Vineberg include
Put simply, says Vineberg, “it’s hard being a human, especially today.” We’re trying, he adds, to “juggle all things—work, children, relationships, spirituality—all while life is throwing us curveballs.”
“The longest-lived people in the world have a good community, healthy relationships, a job they enjoy, and a passion they pursue,” says Gitalis. Taken together, these, he says, “are the most important foundations for lifelong mental health.”
Josh Gitalis, clinical nutritionist and functional medicine practitioner, shares his wisdom about supplements, herbs, and activities to nourish men’s mental health.
Omega-3s may help some people with healthy cognition to prevent depression or neurodegenerative disease.
St. John’s wort is one of the most prescribed natural antidepressants and shows efficacy over short periods.
Valerian, passion flower, lemon balm, and camomile are also commonly taken to help take the edge off the nervous system.
L-theanine has been shown to shift brain waves in support of a more mentally relaxed state.
Magnesium is known as an anti-stress mineral that can help sleeplessness by calming nervousness, irritability, and the inability to relax.
Bruce Nollert, chef and alive contributor, shared with me his emotional well-being path.
“I was brought up to not show emotion. In the playground, around friends, it was not okay to cry or show softness, says Nollert. I believed I needed to always be strong and in control. I never felt mental health was a real thing, until I started my own business and went through a separation, which opened the door to a new journey of exploring my mental health.”
Nollert says that, at first, trying to feel and articulate his emotions was like learning a new language. He feels that many men are unaware of their emotional state until something major happens in their life to cause them to deeply reflect on their inner workings.
It can be hard for men to talk about their mental well-being, says Nollert. “Just try and tell a locker room full of men that you’re feeling sad or insecure. We’re socially conditioned to believe we’re weak if we do.”
“I do feel it’s getting better,” Nollert says, with many ways to reduce stress, negativity, and toxic energy. “My own lifestyle now prioritizes books, podcasts, individual and group therapy, regular exercise, breathwork, meditations, and sharing my story.”