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Mental Illness and Young Men: Reimagining Masculinity

Updated: Mar 28

The onset of March brought: A 21-year-old Caucasian man accused of shooting dead 8 people including 6 of Asian descent in Atlanta. A week later, a 21-year-old Middle Eastern man charged with 10 counts of murder at a local Colorado grocery store. And 2 weeks ago, the admission of British royalty – the Duchess of Sussex’s inescapable hopelessness mounting to suicidal thoughts.


What exactly is mental health? Before that, here is what mental health isn’t: it is not a character flaw, nor is it a weakness. A person does not become violent due to a mental health concern. It is also not something that prevents someone from having relationships and jobs. One in five of us experience a mental health issue; one in ten will experience major depression, and one in 25 will live with a serious mental illness, like schizophrenia or bipolar.


What is mental health?


Mental health is our response to life. It is how we think, act, feel, and respond to situations and people, as well as how we cope. It defines how we make sense of ourselves, others, and the world around us; how we relate to others and the choices we make.


How does Race factor into mental health?


A person of color and those whose lives have been marginalized by people in power, often experience life differently from those who have not been subjected to the feeling of “other”, or feeling devalued, unheard, or disrespected. With a statistic of 1 in 5 experiencing mental health issues, adding racism and prejudice, predisposes the person to trauma, which has a very strong correlation to mental illness.


The brother of Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa – the 21-year-old shooter at the grocery store in Colorado – told reporters that his brother had been suffering from mental illness. The brother and a friend of Alissa paint a picture of a young male bullied during high school for his name, for his religious beliefs, and for isolating. Robert Aaron Long – the 21-year-old shooter at massage parlors in Atlanta, quoted sex addiction.


Long’s parents reveal a text from their son in 2019 that states his desire to not return home and wanting a fresh start. When apprehended, Long reported, “some type of porn industry” that he wanted to confront. Alissa, per his brother and friends, made social media posts about being followed and chased and at a point, covered his camera with duct tape to not be seen.


Religion and mental health:


Alissa, an immigrant from Syria, a Muslim man – per his brother, was not religious. Long, per his former youth minister, attended a Baptist church regularly partaking in church activities. Neither of the two suspects were hyper religious. The religions – in this case, Islam, and Christianity, do not instigate billions of its followers toward violence. On the contrary, studies showcase that prayer is positively correlated with mental health outcomes.


The Illusory truth effect:


Why do we so often think that mental illness causes people to be violent or Islam equals fanatism? People start assuming certain “facts” despite contrary evidence, due to overexposure to a piece of information. If repeated flashing of a bearded Muslim suspect who is “paranoid” or an isolated sex addict causing violence, singular facets such as mental health causes violence, and Muslims being dangerous start seeming true. People will assume many inferred facets of it as accurate. The illusory truth effect stemming from familiarity and repetition can propagate damaging misinformation.


Can we support young men to talk about emotions?


When the question comes to mental health, religion, and race – is there something we can change in our individual world view? Could there be a way that young men deeply entrenched by societal norms on masculinity have a chance to be accepted with their vulnerability and get appropriate mental health support?


If mental health were talked and treated like heart disease, and not a failure of virtue or character flaw, we may witness a change in the mindset of the way people suffering from it could receive services without shame. If 1 in 5 of us is going to live with mental illness and out of that staggeringly high population, lesser than 5% commit any violent crime, perhaps it is time to protect the most vulnerable from getting bullied, improving access to treatment, reaching out and supporting people who feel isolated.


Attitudes consistent with racist, xenophobic, or culturally insensitive ways can further exacerbate feelings of isolation and trauma. In a society fashioned for a tough Marlboro man, can there be an opening to experience acceptance of vulnerability?


It can. It is time for healing and repair. We can take steps to share stories, increase access to talking about emotions with youth, especially men, and remind people that they really are not alone. The future for young men experiencing racism, mental health issues, and societal pressures can look like a lifeline offered to Meghan Markle with support and understanding.


What can you do?


It starts from home. In our possibly soon post Covid world, we need conversations and people who can listen. Encourage healthy dialog in family settings and promote language that is supportive and encouraging.


Learning about mental health by attending a workshop or reading can aid in reducing mental health stigma. This can further open ways to talk with children in an age-appropriate manner about these issues and can improve boys finding ways to openly communicate from a young age about their emotions along with being assertive to seek support.


Reduce overexposure to news and social media that can have a numbing or worse, illusory truth effect. Instead, encouraged physical health, which can directly have a positive on mental health.


May the flowers, cards, and candles of Atlanta and Colorado be a reminder of our multilayered reality of mutual existence that can inspire hope and a deliberate action for change.


References:

Image - Unsplash.com


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