On International Men’s Day, Let’s Celebrate These Conversations About Men’s Mental Health Issues In Popular Media

A few male celebrities and characters in movies are speaking up about men's mental health issues. Let’s hope that this encourages and normalizes these conversations in society at large.

A few male celebrities and characters in movies are speaking up about men’s mental health issues. Let’s hope that this encourages and normalizes these conversations in society at large.

Men’s mental health issues are finally having a moment in pop culture. A couple of movies and a handful of celebrities have started the conversation –a big deal in a culture that believes that men must be ‘tough’.

A taboo subject

“Men don’t cry,” “Be a man!” “Men can take any amount of pain.”

These are the sort of messages than men receive, both from society at large and from pop culture, specifically. Just last year, for example, actor Salman Khan said in an interview that he does not have the ‘luxury’ to be depressed, framing it as a ‘choice’ made by people who are ‘weak’, rather than as a debilitating illness that is stigmatized.

Talking about mental health in general is taboo in India, but talking about men’s mental health issues is nearly impossible. In such a scenario, it is lovely to see male celebrities speaking about their own struggles.

Mental health issues are real

Much praise has been lavished on Dr Shashi Tharoor’s stand-up performance on One Mic Stand, but it is Vishal Dadlani’s performance that is the underrated gem. He not only identified mental health as the topic he wants to speak about, but also shared his personal experience with going to a therapist – admittedly, he went for just one session, but even that he says helped him tremendously. In his act, he also went on to point out that the way we talk about mental health trivializes real struggles.

Another recent pop culture moment for men’s mental health was showcased in the Netflix movie House Arrest, (written by Samit Basu; co-directed by Samit Basu and Shashanka Ghosh; starring Ali Fazal, Shriya Pilgaonkar, Jim Sarbh, and Barkha Singh) which released a couple of days ago. House Arrest is a comedy that among the laughs, presents a sensitive portrait of a man struggling with his mental health. I won’t say anything more, because spoilers, but the movie is definitely worth a watch!

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Pop culture in India has never had a serious conversation about men’s mental health issues. Worse, these men’s mental health issues are instead romanticized as expressions of ‘passionate love’. Be it Rahul from Darr, Radhey from Tere Naam, Devdas, or Kabir Singh, the therapist they really need are replaced by dependency on alcohol/drugs or an obsessive dependence on the women in their lives. This is infinitely problematic as it feeds into the stereotype that “a good woman can reform a man,” and traps both partners in a cycle of abuse.

How to speak of men’s mental health issues

My favourite scene in the movie, Kumbalangi Nights, is one in which the character of Saji, played so beautifully by Soubin Shahir, opens up to his youngest brother, Franky (Matthew Thomas), saying that “he is screwed up” and that he needs help. He asks Franky to take him to the hospital.

It is a monumental, “never before seen” moment on screen. At least, I can’t remember seeing a character, especially a male character, show his vulnerability and ask for help. With this small slice of life moment on screen, the movie tackled a deep seated taboo against seeking help for men’s mental health issues.

The scene that follows, in which Saji visits a counsellor, is also an iconic and sensitively shot scene. The way Saji is shown to cry, to let his emotions out, in the presence of a non-judgemental, supportive psychologist is truly moving. We experience his relief.

The scene is also important because the focus stays on Saji’s feelings without becoming unnecessarily voyeuristic. Devang Pathak writes about this scene for Film Companion, saying, “In the scene with the psychologist, it’s important to note that audiences are never shown all the details which Saji is sharing. Bobby and Baby are instead used as conduits for the information on the family’s past. The result is that the focus is largely on ‘What’ Saji is feeling rather than the ‘Why’.

Persons suffering from mental illnesses are often posed with semantical questions, voyeuristic enquiries, and unsolicited advice. The audience’s voyeurism might feel dissatisfied at first in being denied the complete story but Saji’s pain and hesitance is the subject of the scenes, not the details.”

The all-pervasive scope of the problem

Given how much influence pop culture has on real life, it is not surprising that these problematic ideas are reflected in how men’s mental health issues are dealt with in society.

A study by Liang and George (2012), conducted in South India, found that some men with depression wanted to talk to family or friends about their personal difficulties but had few or no people in their social networks with whom they trusted to share their feelings.

Another study, in Canada, by Coen et al. (2013) threw light on the fact that masculine stereotypes work to keep men’s emotional expression and depression ‘behind closed doors’ with men depending on their wives and female partners for emotional support in private. This was reinforced by the fact that when they did try to reach out to other men, the experiences were negative, with other men unwilling or unreceptive to discussing personal issues.

A recent research paper by India State-level Disease Burden Initiative, shows that India’s contribution to global suicide deaths increased from 18·7% in 1990 to 24·3%, in 2016, among men. While these figures are far lesser than the figures for women, (25.3% in 1990 to 36.6% in 2016), they are still a cause for concern.

How their women bear the brunt of men’s mental health issues

The fallout of the mental illness, and the lack of attention it receives, not only affects the men themselves, but also their families, and society at large. In India, a patriarchal society, the men in the family are still largely the breadwinners, (and usually the decision makers) on whom the socioeconomic well-being of the family depends.

The 2011 census by the Registrar General of India, reported that 78.62% of persons with mental illness were not employed, and only 13.15% were currently employed. Even this may be underreported because, due to the stigma against mental illness, only the severest of cases come to light.

Caregiving for those suffering from mental illnesses, usually performed by the women in the family, not only affects the caregivers health and well-being, but also becomes a full-time job, making it difficult for them too to hold on to paying work, further causing economic distress. Gururaj et al (2016), found that in any given quarter of the year family members of affected individuals miss about 10–20 working days taking care of persons with mental illness. According to the WHO, India stands to lose 1.03 trillion dollars, in lost productivity, from mental health conditions between 2012 and 2030.

Furthermore untreated mental illness also results in antisocial behaviours, crime, homelessness, domestic violence, alcohol and drug use.

So, talking about men’s mental health issues, and designing systems to ensure that mental illnesses are diagnosed and treated, benefits not only the men themselves, but their families and society at large as well.

Ramasubramanian, C., Mohandoss, A. A., & Namasivayam, R. K. (2016), who studied the employability of mentally ill persons in India, based on the aforementioned census data, have recommended that healthy, special job opportunities, reservations and other rehabilitative measures, with rehabilitative psychiatry as a core feature, be immediately implemented.

The role of toxic/traditional masculinity

That toxic/traditional masculinity has a role to play in this cannot be denied. Not only does such ‘masculinity’ shame men for moments of ‘weakness’, but it also emphasizes independence and looks down upon seeking help.

It is in recognition of this that the American Psychological Association, came up with a set of 10 guidelines last year, for mental health professionals working with boys and men who subscribe to stereotypical ‘masculinity’. The guidelines help them understand, among other things, how to encourage fathers to engage with their kids, how to address problems that disproportionately affect men, like suicide and substance abuse, and how to steer men toward healthy behaviors.

This is why the recent spoken word performance by Ayushmann Khurrana, of a poem written by Gaurav Solanki is so relevant and timely. In the same, he advocates for the need to set aside these toxic stereotypes, and encourages men to “feel their feelings.”

As renowned psychiatrist Dr. Bharat Vatwani points out in this insightful interview, “I believe that any celebrity, by coming forward and acknowledging that he or she has had mental health issues, does bring mental illness out of the closet and into the streets. By acknowledgement of their mental problems, they make the common citizens, who aspire to be them and often emulate them, take cognizance of their own mental weaknesses, accept them, address them and learn to move on.”

One hopes that this slow, but steady influx of positive representation of men’s mental health issues on screen, will lead to a positive change in society at large, especially for men.

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