Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Ryan Reynolds, Michael Phelps, and Kevin Love all share one thing in common, and it’s not their fame.
Instead, each of these men has done something once unthinkable: They’ve talked publicly about their mental health struggles.
SEE ALSO: 11 times famous men spoke up about mental health
Johnson, an action hero best known for his positivity and pecs, recently described his own bouts of depression and what it felt like, as a teenager, to stop his mother from attempting suicide. Love, a power forward for the Cleveland Cavaliers, wrote an essay in March for the online publication Players’ Tribune about experiencing a panic attack. Reynolds, star of the new sequel Deadpool 2, recently told the New York Times that he regularly experiences anxiety. Last December, Phelps, the most decorated Olympian in history, opened up to Today about feeling depressed and suicidal.
These men sell billions of dollars in movie tickets, play on one of the best basketball teams in the world, and make winning gold medals seem easy. They look like paragons of masculinity. They also wrestle with anxiety and depression. That shouldn’t surprise us given that mental illnesses are exceedingly human conditions; nearly a third of men have experienced a period of depression in their lifetimes.
They look like paragons of masculinity. They also wrestle with anxiety and depression.
But you might not assume that because sharing those stories has historically meant risking your manhood; a man might be called weak or “gay” for revealing his truth. Famous men like Johnson, Reynolds, Phelps, and Love, and their peers, however, are proving it’s possible to candidly name their mental health experiences and defeat the stigma that keeps so many men silent.
These voices, and those of countless men working to reduce stigma in their own communities, have arrived at a critical time.
Rates of suicide have been rising for middle-aged men. Time and again, we watch in horror as a disaffected or radicalized young man commits mass murder, or an angry partner kills his wife, and maybe her family, in an act of domestic violence. Following the Parkland shooting in April, the comedian Michael Ian Black implored us to consider how “boys are broken” and then wrote an op-ed in the New York Times about the psychological perils of traditional manhood.
“Too many boys are trapped in the same suffocating, outdated model of masculinity, where manhood is measured in strength, where there is no way to be vulnerable without being emasculated, where manliness is about having power over others,” Black wrote.
We’re terrified of being viewed as something other than men. We know ourselves to be men, but don’t know how to be our whole selves. A lot of us (me included) either shut off or experience deep shame or rage. Or all three. Again: men are terrified.
— Michael Ian Black (@michaelianblack) February 15, 2018
Though most boys and men will never commit the type of extreme violence that dominates the news, these events combined with public health trends, have forced us to confront why so many men feel bound to a style of masculinity that robs them of a complex inner life and the ability to ask for help when they desperately need it.
Warren Spielberg is a psychoanalyst in New York City who’s spent most of his life thinking about this question. What he knows for sure is that we must change how boys are raised.
“We ‘adultify’ little boys, and it’s a terrible thing to do, because you take away their childhood,” said Spielberg.
“We ‘adultify’ little boys, and it’s a terrible thing to do, because you take away their childhood.”
And while we typically respond to girls’ emotional needs, parents, educators, and coaches will tell boys to toughen up, or resort to the old adage “boys don’t cry.” So boys develop deep-seated shame about their emotional needs, which can intensify and worsen through adolescence into early adulthood, particularly if they endure experience bullying and ostracization.
By the time adult men arrive in his office, Spielberg said they’re often paranoid about being vulnerable.
“The idea of being in a situation of treatment, where you are dependent on somebody, and you’re supposed to open up and be emotional — it’s a resistance they can’t name,” he said.
Justin Baldoni, an actor who plays the reformed playboy Rafael in the TV series Jane the Virgin, is one of the men using his fame to unravel these complex dynamics in public. His web series “Man Enough” brings accomplished men together to talk honestly about life — and their fears.
In a 2017 TEDWomen talk entitled “Why I’m done trying to be ‘man enough,'” Baldoni described tiring of “pretending to be strong when I felt weak, confident when I felt insecure and tough when really I was hurting.”
In the past, when Baldoni struggled with thoughts of depression, loneliness, or sadness, he found it difficult to reach out for help, he said in an email to Mashable. It’s gotten easier, but he added, “even now, somewhere deep inside of me I feel a resistance to it.”
That opposition, he explained, reflects what boys and men have been taught about the dangers of emotional vulnerability.
“I also think that we’ve been socialized to think that by sharing our struggle then we are giving away our power, giving away our secrets, and that those secrets can be used against us, and that’s really sad,” Baldoni said.
He knows that his web series is reaching men because they privately message him to share their personal reflections and experiences. And yet, Baldoni said, women most frequently post the series to social media, which points to the powerful stigma still attached to the simple act of a man openly acknowledging a desire to better know himself and his emotions.
That famous and successful men like Baldoni have risked vulnerability despite the unforgiving scrutiny of stardom says something about the current cultural moment — and where it’s headed.
The moment didn’t materialize thanks only to the recent candor of male celebrities. Instead, it’s the product of years of grassroots advocacy to raise awareness about mental health. Military suicides in the wake of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars drew our attention to the turmoil in some men’s inner lives. Robin Williams’ suicide helped us understand that mental illness doesn’t discriminate based on income or fame. Public service announcements rejected stigma.
And in the past few years, high-profile men also stepped forward to share their struggles. That list includes the NFL football player Brandon Marshall, former Rhode Island Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy, comedian and TV host Wayne Brady, musician Pete Wentz, the rapper Logic, and Prince Harry.
Plenty of pundits and cultural critics see the focus on healthy masculinity and mental wellbeing as a feminist attack on a version of traditional manhood they know and love. The men leading this movement, however, say it’s about helping confused boys and men make sense of their role in 21st century families, communities, and workplaces. The goal is to expand the definition of masculinity so that instead of deadening their emotions and burying their pain, boys and men embrace complex feelings as part of their manhood.
Joe Barksdale, a right tackle for the Los Angeles Chargers who recently discussed his experiences with suicide, depression, and childhood trauma for the first time, said in an interview with Mashable that men could push the current moment forward by seeking mental health help if they are suffering in silence.
“It’s not about protecting masculinity and upholding some kind of mantle…” he said. “Admitting you have a problem is not the end of the world; dying because you didn’t admit you have a problem is the end of world.”
Watching Hollywood stars and sports heroes talk about their struggles and get praise and acceptance in return will certainly convince some boys and men to rethink their own masculinity. But the momentum of this movement can’t transform the status quo without broader change.
Gary Barker, president and CEO of Promundo, a nonprofit organization that engages men and boys in gender equality, said that parents and people who work with children, along with celebrities and media outlets, need to model healthy masculinity for boys, offering them opportunities to break out of restrictive gender norms, much in the way we’ve found ways to successfully do that for girls.
“Are we filling that void that boys are facing in the same ways we’ve done for women?”
“Are we filling that void that boys are facing in the same ways we’ve done for women?” he asked.
Barker said doing that well requires progress on numerous fronts.
Socially inclined companies that market men’s products can reduce stigma and increase acceptance with their ads, much like women’s brands have done in recent years. Mental health practitioners can learn more about the unique challenges men face and eliminate stigma in their own relationships with patients. Parents, teachers, and coaches can encourage boys to ask for help, framing it as a sign of strength, not weakness. And we can collectively address the social isolation of boys, helping them to develop close friendships and connections they may be missing.
This amounts to years of hard, consistent work that’ll no doubt attract critics who are skeptical of new ideas about masculinity.
But men can instead listen to someone like Baldoni: “My message to any man reading this would be to just know that you’re not alone, and know that whether you feel you are a tough, strong, quiet, independent man or someone who’s really soft, emotional and quiet … you are still a man.”
For more information on men’s mental health, visit the National Institute of Mental Health. You can search for behavioral health treatment here. If you want to talk to someone or are experiencing suicidal thoughts, text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Here is a list of international resources.