A mother’s promise to normalize male mental health in her home

Becoming a new mother is an experience that is as overwhelming as it is magical. After the piercing pain, extreme fatigue, and weeks of slow recovery, the haze that lingers following delivery is lifted, and a sense of awe sets in. You stare at your newborn, relishing in this indescribable rendering of love, when, out of left field,  you are hit with the weight of being entrusted with an invaluable life. Despite the endless list of “must-have” parenting books, the heaps of purportedly essential baby contraptions, and all of the unsolicited advice you could have ever dreamed for, there is nothing that could prepare you for the enigma staring back at you. To a certain degree, every parent accepts this truth, and so I know that I am not alone when I start imagining the curveballs that are headed my way. It has been seven months since I have become a mother to my magical son, Oliver Lee, and in those seven months, I have been envisioning all of the hypothetical challenges I will have to confront, and then imagining all of the ways I hope to navigate them. The one theme that I continually return to, however, is my son’s mental health. 

Over the past dozen years, mental illness has been at the forefront of mine and my family’s lives, as both my sister and I have had to wage war with the incredible darkness that only psychological conditions can marshal. In last year’s mental health issue of Urbanicity, I shared both of our stories, divulging how my sister’s untameable mental and physical conditions led to her suicide, and how her passing subsequently led to my own experience with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Major Depressive Disorder. Writing about our stories was liberating and cathartic, but since becoming a mother, I have had to consider our experiences in a new light. Because I have seen, first-hand, the devastating and debilitating effects of mental illness, I cannot help but be plagued by the fear that I might have to live through its force once again. Naturally, I still grieve over losing my sister, and I periodically worry about relapsing into old symptoms, but now I mostly ruminate over whether mental illness will be the curveball that I have to forever be on the lookout for in my son. 

In these reflections, I have acknowledged, accepted, and moved past the reality that my son will be more susceptible to mental illness due to the hereditary nature of psychological conditions. This truth is, it is something I have no control over, and through my own recovery from PTSD and MDD, I have learned that I cannot fixate on the things I cannot change, and so I don’t afford this matter much thought. What I do focus on, however, is an arguably more troubling fact: supports for mental health are gendered. What I mean by this is that while women are encouraged and, dare I say, expected to share feelings, shed tears, and pursue support, the insidious messaging in the media and in our social norms dissuades men from doing the same. In order to be considered “masculine,” men must deny the existence of their emotions, hide any trace of shed tears, and rebuke any form of external support. As a mother of a vulnerable son, I am anxious about how this message might dissuade my son from pursuing his own mental health needs. But further to this, on an objective scale, I am deeply saddened that the stigmatization of male-emotional-care continues to be propagated, as it is surely one of the greatest factors contributing to today’s startling statistics around men and mental health. While popular belief would have you think that mental health conditions are a female issue, 4 out of 5 suicides are completed by males, substance abuse disorders outnumber women by 3 to 1, and 87% of those accused of homicide are men. 

Let these facts sink in. 

As I mentioned before, I do not fixate on the things I cannot change, but thankfully, these figures can be changed, and so I will fixate on them until they do. From my experience with overcoming mental illness, and from witnessing the better days during my sister’s fight with mental illness, I can boldly say that when we were encouraged to talk, cry, or seek help, we were at our best. When I was asked by a friend to explain what PTSD feels like, I felt supported; when my sister knew that she could walk into my mother’s room at 2 in the morning and be held as she cried, she felt safe; and when we both agreed to seek professional help, we experienced breakthroughs. As I raise my son, I will always remind myself of the threatening figures around male mental health, and I will be empowered to change them through strategies that helped me change. In my pursuit, I will model mental-health-discussions and teach my son words to help express his feelings, I will provide him with an ear that will validate his emotions, I will offer him a shoulder if all he needs to do is cry, and I will encourage him to pursue his own healing measures to counter his dark days. Normalizing the pursuit of mental health in our home will be a labour of love that will take patience, persistence, and commitment, but since I know that I can do something to thwart this curveball, I will. 

I hold on to the hope that the stigmatization around male mental health will dissipate, and that our society will soon recognize how crucial it is to acknowledge, support, and encourage the attempts males make to speak about their emotional well being, and to seek help when needed. Perhaps when discussions around male mental health are normalized, suicide, substance abuse and homicide rates will all decline, alongside the many cases of veiled mental illness. So if you have ever bought into the perpetuated notion that mental illness is a female condition, I hope you are strong enough to surrender this stereotype so that you, too, can help change this silent crisis.