Man and woman having coffee

"Supporting a loved one struggling with depression or anxiety is the greatest gift we can give to that person."

As girls and women, we tend to talk about our feelings. This is an important connection most of us have with our girlfriends. Of course, we too hold emotional pain inside, but when it comes to expressing those feelings the stigma in our society is very different for men and women.

We have all heard the phrases “put on your big boy pants”, “man up”, and “big boys don’t cry” – it is time for these to stop.

Phrases like these start early and create a mindset that is causing more damage to our sons, brothers, fathers, partners, husbands and male friends than any other health concern facing men today.

Far too many boys and men are struggling with depression, anxiety, panic attacks, substance use. My own sons have and do. Keeping emotional pain inside just compounds the pain and feelings of despair.

There are many reasons boys and men face emotional pain and some can be especially difficult for them to talk about:

  • Sexual abuse as a child
  • Living in a home with domestic violence or substance abuse
  • Feelings of abandonment after parents divorce
  • Being bullied
  • Being part of the LGBTQ2 community and not having acceptance at home

When boys and men don’t share these experiences, they remain isolated in their emotions.

Emotional pain is the number one factor in drug and alcohol mis-use and overdose, and in suicide deaths.

How many men do you know who never speak about their emotions?

Recently, I had a meeting with a man struggling with addiction. We talked about emotional pain.

For 40 years he has been friends with the same group of men he went to elementary school with – they get together every week.

I asked him if he has ever told any of them that he felt sad or that he was carrying emotional pain. He looked puzzled, gave an uncomfortable laugh, and said “no”.

When I asked him if any of them have ever talked to each other about how they were feeling, he said “never”.

In 40 years not one of them has ever mentioned how they were emotionally dealing with things in their lives. That is a tragedy.

At the end of our meeting he said he had shared more with me in two hours than he had shared in his entire life. I could see real emotion in his face.

We can play a part in changing the way men feel about discussing emotions and the internal dialogue they have with themselves

The most important thing we can do is make the boys and men in our lives feel safe. They have to be comfortable in knowing there is no judgment, because there shouldn’t be.

We mothers, sisters, partners, wives, daughters, friends can take a real lead in this. As women, let’s help change these dynamics.

Last evening my son called. He had a completely overwhelming day and said he was just barely holding it in.

I asked him why he felt he had to hold his feelings in. If I felt like crying, as a woman, no one would tell me not to cry.

Create a safe space through listening

When we realize our loved ones are struggling, the kindest thing we can do is show compassion and a willingness to listen, to encourage and to support them in getting the help they need to be able to live the life they deserve.

As mothers, sisters, partners, wives, daughters we are not equipped to treat or counsel – that is where the professionals come in – but what we are equipped to do is listen. To encourage dialogue. To offer support without judgment. To show compassion. To be there.

Supporting a loved one struggling with depression or anxiety is the greatest gift we can give to that person.

The boys and men in our lives may not be comfortable talking about their feelings. Talking about feelings can leave people feeling very vulnerable, so how can we make that “environment” more comfortable?

  • First, we have to ensure our loved one feels safe, that their thoughts are sacred with us and that they will not be shared unless their life or the life of another is at risk.
  • Second, we sometimes have to take the lead. This means we have to show our own vulnerability first – to set an example and then be ready to listen.

Every time we stretch out our hand in a way that is safe, it allows the person struggling in isolation to feel not so alone.

When we allow and encourage our loved ones to talk about their emotional pain, it doesn’t have that same hold over them any longer.

Depression is a very dark place to be, but help is available. We do our part by offering support and direction and encouraging those we love to make that call and reach out for professional support. That is when the healing journey begins.

The boys and men in our lives deserve nothing less. It’s time to embrace the realization that the strongest men are the ones who take care of their emotional health.

Author bio: 

June Ariano-Jakes has volunteered more than 16,000 hours assisting those who live in poverty and homelessness, and who struggle with severe alcoholism, hard-core drug addiction, and brain-related illness.

She has given over 400 presentations on Addiction, Homelessness, and Gang Violence in secondary schools throughout the British Columbia, at colleges and universities, detox centres, recovery and treatment programs, parent support groups, jails, churches, union meetings and service clubs.

June is also the author of “Addiction: A Mother’s Story”.