2020 Jun 16
“Mental health has not been a conversation topic, growing up in Sri Lanka. I suffered a severe insecurity complex as a result of a judgmental family, being bullied by friends and misjudged by girls. I have considered taking my life a total of five times now”.
– Sharan Velauthan, Mental Health Avocate
Moving into the 21st century, mental health is now finally beginning to receive the attention it should have been given throughout history, especially towards the masculine gender. Mental wellness has adverse effects on an individual’s brain chemistry, directly affecting their emotional, psychological and social well-being.
More often than not, most forms of mental abuse have been at the hands of family members and loved ones. In addition to this, most men in Sri Lanka have been brought up in a culture of toxic masculinity – where they are made to believe that grown men are supposed to deal with everything on their own, and are not entitled to any form of outside help.
We spoke to Founder/Director of Angel Keepers Pvt Ltd Dr. Theonie Anthonisz Chandrasena and Mental Health Advocate Sharan Velauthan to gain insight on men’s mental health in Sri Lanka and why it is important to pay close attention to it.
Dealing with career pressure
For the majority of Sri Lanka’s children, their households have already established the career path they should take, often without knowing what the child’s passions or interests are. When it comes to boys, many are pushed into believing that success only stems from being a doctor, lawyer or engineer. Keeping in mind that not all children have the ability to follow such careers, other areas of interest that could lead to fruitful careers such as literature, performing arts and fashion are dismissed as “not masculine enough”. For young men passionate about such fields, overworking to get qualified in a ”parent-approved” field, and then continuing to work a 9 to 5 job only for the sake of household approval can be detrimental to their mental well-being.
Moreover, during the intermediate phase between education and work life, young men are criticized while they take time off to figure themselves out, and what they want to accomplish in life. Not everyone knows right away where they’re headed and comments such as “being lazy” and a “burden to their parents” are also driving forces towards taking up mentally unfulfilling jobs.
Being told to “Man Up”
The phrase “man up” originates from American prisons, where inmates were instructed to act tough in order to avoid being a victim of abuse from more dominant prisoners. Over time, this phrase has made its way beyond the walls of prisons and is now also heard among the youth of Sri Lanka. “Umba pirimiyek neh” and “Kollek wageh hitapan” are examples of such and have been used to imply that “being a man” is a status that is to be earned.
From starting fights to chugging drinks, boys who are hesitant about something they are not comfortable doing, are pressured into assuming that this is what a member of the masculine gender would do. In some cases, such influence has gone to the extent of instilling misogynistic behaviour and engagement in immoral sexual activities. Very often, it is not the act itself that does the most damage – it is the spiral of thoughts and regret that follows.
Furthermore, factors such as age and lifestyle have also played a part in the versatile use of this toxic expression. Older generations are usually less capable of expressing their emotions and are more homophobic than the youth of today. Therefore, to some of them, gay and queer men are considered a disgrace to their views on masculinity. This has made the coming out process particularly difficult for young men, especially in countries like Sri Lanka. Where mental health should benefit from the open disclosure of one’s sexual orientation, many experience the opposite more often than not.
Stress and emotional distance
Stress can spring from various sources – home, relationships and most commonly, work. From prehistoric times, the idea of manhood has been associated with one’s capability of the 3 P’s – providing, protecting and procreating. Though this mindset has now seen a radical change, few male workaholics still believe this burden rests solely on their shoulders, pushing them to over-promise what they cannot deliver. As a result, most men soon find themselves unhappy when they no longer have time to do the things they love, such as their favourite hobbies and spending time with family. Stress in itself is not a mental disorder but can lead to depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts in severe cases.
The best way to deal with stress and depression is to seek help – professionally, or simply by speaking to colleagues on how you are feeling. However, the idea of suppressing emotions can be traced back to boyhood, where they are told that crying is “girly”, and raising their voice to elders in anger is a sign of disrespect. Hence, men now see being open about their emotions as a weakness and tend to internalize everything and withdraw socially. They then rely on other coping mechanisms such as alcohol and drugs.
A call for help
When it comes to diagnosing mental health disorders, depression is the biggest sign. Be it stress or a traumatic event, men are less likely to accept their need for help. Therefore, it is essential for the people around them to immediately identify the following signs and symptoms associated with depression as a call for help:
- Feelings of anxiety
- Continuous tiredness and slacking off at work
- Mood swings or being in a constant state of irritation
- Loss of sleep
- Ongoing headaches and digestive issues
- Panic attacks
- Abuse of alcohol and drugs
- Thoughts on suicide/self-harm
“Mental health has not been a conversation topic, growing up in Sri Lanka. I suffered a severe insecurity complex as a result of a judgmental family, being bullied by friends and misjudged by girls. I have considered taking my life a total of five times now. The worst I have felt was a few years ago when I was going through a period where I was facing conflicts with my boss at work and I wasn’t proceeding in the way I planned; I didn’t get along well with my mum and with my relationship, and I kept losing friends”.
“I still continue to have panic attacks on and off. A panic attack feels like a heart attack – you lose feeling all over your body and experience pain. For me, I had difficulty breathing as well. A remedy suggested by my therapist was to learn where the pain was coming from. I always felt like I had a rubber ball blocking my diaphragm at times like this. I was then advised to first ground myself, feel the ground with my toes and hold onto something. Then what I had to do was just imagine crushing away the ball, until it gets smaller and smaller and eventually disappears” – Sharan
Remedies and support
Much like any disease, depression can grow inside an individual and have catastrophic effects if not identified and treated in its early stages. Recovery from mental disorders should not be considered a one-time fix. Rather it is a lifelong journey of continuously striving to be in a better state of mind than yesterday. The process of healing begins with the acknowledgement of emotions and confronting the cause where possible. Following this, self-care activities such as therapy, exercise and meditation can play a pivotal role.
Therapy can be in the form of a conversation with a loved one, or a licensed therapist. Professional therapy is mandatory for severe cases, but should not be viewed as a last resort to milder ones. Additionally, opening up to a stranger may help the patient feel more at ease by eliminating the fear of being judged if it were a close friend/family member.
“I have been going for therapy for around 1 year and 10 months now, and I know my fight against issues with mental health will be a continuous one. The best advice I can give is this – People will tell you that it will eventually go away, and things will return to normal, which is a big misconception in itself. It’s okay to not be okay, and your thoughts are always valid. But also, despite you having the best therapist and the most amazing support from your friends and family, it will not be of any use unless you work on yourself first. Taking care of yourself, and talking more openly on how you are feeling is the best way of seeking treatment and prioritising your mental well-being” – Sharan
However, breaking the taboo on men’s mental health needs to be addressed at its source, identifying the mindset with which most men have been brought up with, and ensuring the next generation is not exposed to the same.
Young boys need to be assured that expressing emotion in times of pain is normal. Growing up, they need to be told to follow their dreams and that there is no such thing as “feminine jobs”. Constant checking up and encouragement to pursue their dreams are essential for a growing child. A better tomorrow is created by what we do today. As parents and parents-to-be, we have the potential to change the future for the upcoming population by breaking the stigma surrounding men and their mental well-being before it even starts.
The 15th– 21st June has been declared globally as Men’s Health Week, following statistics that have shown a disturbing rise in the number of cases of depression and suicide among men in recent years. Looking at the figures for Sri Lanka, over 13,000 cases have been reported in the year 2017. However, this figure is far from the actual value – there are countless men pretending they are okay, while having thoughts of self harm and suicide inside. As we move into this awareness week, a simple thing we can start incorporating into our lives is asking others “How are you?” more often, while providing a genuine answer instead of the rhetorical “I’m fine/ I’m good”. Improving communication is key, whilst keeping in mind that it does not need to take an incident or a life lost, to get more people talking about men’s mental health.
Image of Sharan Velauthan by Sankha Kumaragamage