It's All Right to Cry

Men's mental health and what we can all do to help

Posted Oct 31, 2019

I grew up listening to Free to Be... You And Me, a children’s entertainment project conceived by actor Marlo Thomas in the 1970s. 

In the late 70s and early 80s, when I was a kid, it was pretty revolutionary to consider the ideas that it’s all right to cry, someone named William could want a doll, and maybe it didn’t matter if we had different body parts -- it could be good to be a boy and just as good to be a girl. 

Now that I’m a grown-up and over 40 years have passed since Free to Be... You And Me was created, it seems less revolutionary. But only slightly.

When I heard Michael Addis, professor of psychology and director of the Men’s Well-Being Research Group at Clark University and Stefan Hofmann, professor in the clinical program at Boston University, director of the Psychotherapy and Emotion Research Laboratory interviewed on On Point, I couldn’t help but think of Free to Be… and the lessons I learned as a child, lessons that many are still working on learning. 

Addis and Hofmann were being interviewed about men’s mental health -- basically saying that it’s all right to cry. Their phraseology -- “healthy emotional expression” -- is obviously more sophisticated, but the root is the same. Addis said that, for men, aggression is more acceptable than anxiety, which is part of why we see men with depression showing anger rather than another expression we might expect, like sadness or fear

Addis advocates for “shifting the way we ‘do’ gender as a culture” and coming up with “a new masculinity,” one that tells us that being kind and respectful to others is being a real man. We can also emphasize gender less. In classrooms, for example, there’s no need to sort or separate boys and girls for activities. Kids can count off and be divided up into lions and tigers, or birthdays in the first half of the year and in the second half. We can also refer to children not as “boys and girls” (or adults as “ladies and gentlemen”), instead using “okay, class!” or “folks,” or “everyone here today.” Gender isn’t critical in these situations, and we make it a part of situations that don’t require an acknowledgment of it, further reinforcing difference and separateness. 

For teens and young adults, it’s important to begin to raise awareness and understanding of how common men’s psychological challenges are, so that when young men begin to experience anxiety, as one challenge, they know that it is not abnormal and that it is something other young men go through as well. It’s important to raise awareness across genders, as young women may also think that it isn’t “normal” for young men to have psychological challenges, so they may be dismissive if friends share difficult feelings. 

As adults, our job is to create regular experiences for young people to express difficult feelings, as part of youth groups, classroom activities, or in relationship with parents and other trusted adults.

“The biggest predictor of psychopathology is loneliness,” said Hofmann. Men’s silence has led to a widespread misperception that everyone is okay, which leads to further isolation. “Both men and women underestimate the extent to which men actually do want to talk,” said Addis.

What advice did Addis and Hofmann offer for people with a man in their life who may need help?

  • Lead with concern, love, and compassion - not frustration (which may be a reasonable response if you have been imploring them to get help for some time)
  • Don’t expect an immediate response
  • Just because it takes time to seek help doesn’t mean they didn’t hear your expression of care

In addition, if we need to rename getting help as “coaching” or “strategy,” do it. We should be calling it whatever is needed to make engaging in this work easier for more men. 

Copyright 2019 Elana Premack Sandler, All Rights Reserved