AUSTIN (KXAN) — When it comes to public conversations surrounding mental health, social stigmas and taboos can still make the topic a difficult one to talk about — even more so for men. Four men are working to open up those conversations to a wider audience this Thursday.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness Central Texas has partnered with Ascension Seton for “REAL TALK,” a webinar based on candid discussions about mental health and breaking down some of the hesitations surrounding it. The timing is particularly poignant given that June is recognized as National Men’s Health Month, said Karen Ranus, executive director of NAMI Central Texas.
“I’m so happy that it’s Men’s Health Month, and that we’re focusing on mental health because the reality is, at the core of this is the understanding and the awareness that we need to raise around this notion that mental health is health,” she said, adding: “So much of the work that we do is about helping our community to better understand that and see mental health as a health issue.”
Beyond the thematic elements of June being Men’s Health Month, Ranus added now is an especially crucial time to discuss mental health, backdropped by the past 15 months of the coronavirus pandemic. COVID-19 helped raise public awareness for mental health struggles to the forefront of our social conscious. Ranus said now is the time to elevate that conversation forward even as the most difficult parts of the pandemic linger behind us.
“We’re sort of really seeing this, this global sort of message, and a lot of men are sort of recognizing that they’re not alone. And I think through the media, that message is really hitting home,” said Simon Niblock, a licensed psychotherapist moderating Thursday’s event. “So I think guys are becoming a lot more comfortable saying I’ve got a problem; I’m really struggling here; I’ve never spoken to a therapist; I’ve never sought support. So I’m going to reach out — I’m going to take that first step, I’m going to dip my toe in the water.”
The complexities surrounding candid mental health conversations for men are often rooted in this notion of shame, both Ranus and Niblock said. But an added layer of nuance are the discrepancies in how men of different age ranges and racial and ethnic groups discuss mental health issues and access treatment.
Dr. Manuel X. Zamarripa, director and co-founder of the Institute of Chicana/o Psychology in Austin, said that when it comes to stigmas surrounding mental health, two dimensional concepts of masculinity can prove as significant barriers to seeking help. Emotional intuition and expression is often viewed as a feminine trait, then correlated as being a sign of weakness.
“But I think when we talk about it just as a broad, like, what is it, you know, the broad maleness, then I think, all those kind of stereotypes and ways of thinking how we should be, tend to be blocks,” he said. “And I think we’re much more better to move through those when when we talk about specific roles, as I said, that, that men have in their lives that are important to them.”
Research from the American Psychiatric Association in 2017 reported that, for non-white people who do seek treatment, cultural barriers and biases between patients and medical providers can exacerbate this sense of shame in patients as well as run the risk of underdiagnoses and misdiagnoses.
“Lack of cultural understanding by health care providers may contribute to underdiagnosis and/or misdiagnosis of mental illness in people from racially/ethnically diverse populations,” the report read. “Factors that contribute to these kinds of misdiagnoses include language differences between patient and provider, stigma of mental illness among minority groups, and cultural presentation of symptoms.”
While some sociocultural variations on mental health acceptance can exist between different communities of color, Zamarripa said the cultural and ancestral strengths of different racial and ethnic groups shouldn’t be overlooked. He added mental health taboos are prevalent nationwide, not only within specific communities.
“One of the things that’s important in the work we do for for mental health and mental wellness is to always sift through and find those existing cultural strengths and, you know, that exists within the individual, the family or the community, within particular communities of color, because there are always cultural strengths that have been passed down….the mental health field doesn’t always connect to bring those in,” he said. “And so I think that reconnecting and bringing those two things together — that’s one of the ways that we try to be culturally responsive so that we’re not just teaching new things, right, but that we recognize that there are already competencies that exist with strengths that exist, that we try to elevate.”
In addition to discrepancies in care access among different racial and ethnic populations, there are also generational differences in openness surrounding mental health. Niblock said during his nearly 10 years of research and therapy work, men in their 30s or older tend to be less open than younger patients.
“I think this is where you’re really seeing sort of the big shift culturally, is younger generations are very open, very willing to talk about mental health and very open to talking about seeking support,” he said. “I do a lot of work with guys that — sort of around the age of about 35, and upwards…that’s sort of what I refer to as the latchkey generation. So, you know, gentlemen who have grown up, right, from a very young age to be very independent, and we still see a lot of stigma associated with that generation to seeking support.”
With all mental health issues, Niblock said treatment is not a linear trajectory with a designated start and stop date. It’s an evolving journey that requires practice and effort throughout one’s life. Thursday’s lecture isn’t designed to be the be-all, end-all conversation on mental health support; however, by having men be candid about their experiences with it, he hopes it is a foot in the door for those who haven’t felt supported enough to seek treatment.
“The beauty of the panel discussion is it’s just a real conversation,” he said. “It’s not therapeutic, per se. It’s just real guys talking about the concerns and the problems that they’re struggling with.”