Male students discuss mental health struggles

From left to right: Robin Pounders (senior), Allison Powers (senior) and Paul Charbonneau (senior) speak during the male mental health discussion circle in Johnson Hall at Occidental College in Los Angeles on Tuesday, Oct 16, 2018. Flora Villalobos/The Occidental

Content warning: alcohol and substance abuse, suicide

The Occidental Active Minds chapter hosted an event discussing the stigma surrounding masculinity and mental health Oct. 16. During the event, attendees examined issues like the norms that prevent men from expressing themselves emotionally, the stereotypes of masculine men and the epidemic of male mental illness and its isolating effects.

Though attendance rates were low — five men including counselor Matt Calkins attended — public mental health advocate and former Associated Students of Occidental College (ASOC) president Paul Charbonneau (senior) said that the important thing was to break the silence surrounding male mental health, and that if any of the men in attendance changed the way they view mental health because of the meeting, it was worthwhile.

A presentation from Matt Calkins, associate director of wellness and director of counseling at Emmons Wellness Center, made up the largest portion of the event. According to Calkins, societal norms affect the discrepancies in how men and women express their emotions.

“Before the age of five, research indicates that there is little difference between boys and girls in respect to emotional/affective expression,” Calkins said via email. “Generally speaking, boys receive less attention around their emotional experiences, resulting in possible deficits around emotional fluency  An emphasis on behavioral [sic] can lead to approaches that are permissive (ala ‘boys will be boys’) or punitive (ala “boys need to be disciplined”). Neither addresses emotions.”

According to Robin Pounders (senior), co-president of Active Minds, one of the problems surrounding male mental health is men’s reluctance to seek help when they are struggling. Men are 12 percent less likely to seek treatment for mental illness than women but are 3.5 times more likely to die from suicide, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Moreover, the rate of alcohol dependence among men is more than twice as high than it is among women, according to the World Health Organization. In general, men are more likely to turn to substance abuse instead of using traditional forms of therapy, according to Allison Powers (senior), co-president of Active Minds.

“Men who are experiencing mental health struggles are much more likely to self-medicate with alcohol or other substances and a lot of emotional disturbances are expressed through anger and angry outbursts,” Powers said. “Men have a sort of metaphorical armor around them concerning their emotions.”

Eduardo Garcia (first year) said that the silence on male mental health is detrimental and can cause serious damage to men struggling with their mental health.

Eduardo Garcia (first year), discusses his experience with mental health on the Academic Quad at Occidental College in Los Angeles on Wednesday, Oct 17, 2018. Flora Villalobos/The Occidental

“With my depression, I felt as if I couldn’t talk about it, and I couldn’t reach out to anybody,” Garcia said. “As a guy, I wasn’t supposed to talk about it … my parents didn’t want to talk about it either. It was like I was in this weird limbo where it’s like, ‘I’m in this all by myself, and nobody’s there for me.'”

Charbonneau said that he grew up in a male-dominated household with little room for emotional expression, and that this forced him to silently cope with his feelings.

“My dad was a drill sergeant. I was one of three boys … I had a lot of preconceived notions about holding things in and sort of ‘manning up’ and ‘figuring it out,’” Charbonneau said. “I didn’t want to be a burden — growing up, I had been told that any show of emotions was just being a drama queen sort of thing.”

Garcia and Charbonneau both said that their mental health improved when they were able to talk about their experiences, but that it took drastic measures for those changes to occur. Charbonneau said that it was only after several suicide attempts that he opened up to conversation and therapy and stopped living strictly by traditional standards of masculinity. Garcia also said that it came to the point of attempting to take his own life before his family was willing to speak to him about the issues he was going through.

“I think this [Garcia’s hospitalization] was the point where my mom was like, ‘I don’t think he’s acting out, we need to start talking about this,’” Garcia said.

Charbonneau, who has spoken about his struggles with mental illness on campus, said that men must take the first step in starting the dialogue on men’s mental health. Powers, Charbonneau, Pounders and Garcia all said that talking is the first step to ending the stigma around male mental illness.

“It’s reminding and encouraging men that their emotions are okay, whether or not they feel like they want to share them with you,” Powers said. “I think just being receptive and opening up that space in the conversation of saying, ‘Are you feeling okay?’”

“I think it’s just getting the guys to show up, get out of their shells a bit, getting them to talk a bit,” Charbonneau said.

“If you approach a man who you are close to and ask what is up, he may not be receptive even if he is going through something,” Pounders said. “But just being available and letting him know, ‘Hey, I am here if you ever need someone to talk to about these things,’ is an important part to play.”

“Just talk about it,” Garcia said. “Normalize it.”

Zachary Goodwin contributed reporting to this article.