On our podcast ‘Tales That Tethr’, tethr Founder & CEO Matt Zerker interviews entrepreneurs, experts, thought leaders, and regular people about what is means to be a man, the challenges that modern men face, and how to overcome challenges and live life in a more connected and authentic way.
There is a crisis in men’s mental health. The evidence is everywhere. Men are more likely to feel lonely and reported having fewer friends than their female counterparts. They have higher rates of drop-out in high school, lower rates of attendance at university, and higher rates of unemployment. Substance use disorders are high and 75% of suicides are committed by men. Men are less likely to seek help or address their struggles.
There’s a growing body of work to address why the crisis exists and how to solve it, neither of which present clear answers. Beyond the failure of traditional mental health services to adapt to the needs of modern men, there lies another issue: men are in desperate need of community support.
In April of 2018, Matt Zerker and Addison Brasil were two of the many men in the middle of this crisis. Matt, then a hedge fund manager in Toronto, was grieving the sudden loss of his closest friend. The grief had thrown him into a battle with suicidal depression.
At the same time in Los Angeles, Addison was re-learning to walk after a fatal car accident that took the life of his friend. After also losing his brother to cancer and father to suicide, he faced compounded grief that lead to depression. Although both men were in the minority of those who do reach out for professional help, nothing was working. Instead, they found themselves feeling isolated and unsure of what was next.
The growing need for community support
Dr. Robert Whitley, Principle Investigator at the Social Psychiatry Research and Interest Group and Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at McGill University, spent much of his career researching women’s mental health. He switched his focus when he noticed the lack of work relating to men’s mental health.
“If you look at historical trends,” he explained over a Zoom call, “in my father’s generation, your grandfather’s generation, there were much higher rates of community involvement for men.” This community involvement spanned multiple organizations, from churches and synagogues to trade unions and veterans associations. All of these have seen diminishing memberships over the years. “Peer support used to be kind of readily available in community organizations.”
The change led to increased social isolation, which was then compounded by two other factors: the rise of technology and the decline of the nuclear family. Dr. Whitley offered the example of growing up with a mother and father who both had five or six siblings. The presence of aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents provided community and mentorship in men’s lives. Today, families tend to be much smaller and the divorce rate in Canada sits around 40%. Of course, it’s no secret that technology like smartphones and social media can have an alienating effect. These problems have combined, leading to a lot of lonely people – and especially a lot of lonely, isolated men.
What about therapy?
Where are these isolated men accessing help? Well, mostly they aren’t. Mental health services are often viewed as overly “feminized”. There remains a strong and lasting stigma around seeking help as a man: the antiquated notion that struggling is weak, and therefore not masculine, continues to carry weight in society today.
Beyond the stigma, many find the services themselves to be lacking for men. “I feel psychiatric services have not done a very good job of making their services appeal to young men,” Dr. Whitley said. “The services are very one dimensional, they often have a one-size-fits-all solution.”
The problem is familiar to Matt and Addison. By late October 2018, Matt had tried a laundry list of treatments. Meditation, various therapies, energy work, supplements, anything that might lessen the crippling depression. It was around this time that Addison came across a post that Matt made on Facebook. Even though they hadn’t spoken in a decade, since they attended the same high school, Addison decided to reach out and check-in.
Dr. Whitley pointed to the idiom, “men heal shoulder to shoulder, not face to face” as a starting point for understanding men’s resistance to traditional talk therapy. “When do you sit face to face with somebody when you’re growing up as a man? It’s often in front of the headteacher of your school, or a policeman who’s told you off… or a job interview where there are high stakes.”
Other, lower-stakes activities, like walking with grandparents or driving to hockey practice may have presented less intimidating opportunities for deep discussions. These are what Dr. Whitley classifies as shoulder to shoulder activities.
The idea that men don’t need emotional support is outdated
That doesn’t mean men aren’t looking for a connection. In a recent study, Dr. Whitley focused on the ‘seduction community’, a community that is led by professional ‘pick-up artists’ who teach young men a variety of techniques and mindsets with the stated aim of improving their success with women, or ‘game’.
He was interested in understanding the mental health impact of the community on the millions of men engaging in it through Reddit threads, YouTube videos, books, and in-person lectures. He found that men’s interest in the community extended well beyond ‘getting’ women: “the community appears to fill a void in providing a place of hope, fellowship and learning for young (often immigrant) men.”
Men sought out the groups due to loneliness and a desire for social inclusion, lack of male role models and a need for guidance, mental health and well-being issues, and skill acquisition and personal development. He even identified a correlation between common terms and practices in the Pick Up Community and language used in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).
There was, however, a “dark side” to the community, as Dr. Whitley described it. Understandably, a community that includes an emphasis on sexual conquest is not the ideal model. While any community can provide a sense of belonging, not all are created equal. Ideally, men need access to communities that provide support and guidance around how to be a man, how to operate in the world, and how to lead fulfilling lives. Men are facing serious issues and so, as Dr. Whitley put it, they need serious communities.
When Addison reached out to Matt, he had no particular motive other than identifying that this was another man who was struggling. It was a desire for connection. During their conversations, they talked about their battles with mental health. It was the first time Addison heard another man describe exactly how he felt: I don’t want to live, but I don’t want to die. At the time, it was life-saving to know that his experience wasn’t as isolating as he thought.
Beyond structured communities, Dr. Trevor Hart, a Clinical Psychologist and Professor at Ryerson University, also noted that there are increasingly few opportunities for people to just be together. Over the phone, Dr. Hart explained that society doesn’t have a lot of social settings where people are encouraged to simply spend time with one another — and there are virtually no spaces where men are encouraged to talk and be vulnerable with other men. These issues, like so many others, are exasperated by COVID.
What about the so-called ‘locker room’ talk? Is there a barrier that stops men from going beyond that to deeper conversations? Again, it goes back to socialization. Dr. Hart explained that locker room talk happens in a very specific space where men have seen this behavior modeled. In effect, they’ve been told that behavior is okay. On the other hand, without designated spaces or any behavior modeled around it, most men learn that vulnerability, and opening up, is not okay.
Shortly after they connected, Matt and Addison began exploring men’s support groups. It was another break-through moment and an idea started to circulate in Matt’s head. It was now clear to him that part of what he lost when his friend passed away was connection with another man. He didn’t have other friendships where he felt comfortable opening up about feelings and struggles. Therapy and treatment alone could not fill that void.
Not every problem requires a therapist
Take the example of a break-up. At the end of a relationship, a woman will often discuss the loss with those close to her. Her friends listen, they discuss, and in the process, that woman can resolve a lot of her feelings. All that’s needed is an empathetic ear.
Dr. Mark Goulston, Psychiatrist, Executive Coach, and Author of “Just Listen”, previously touched on this in relation to good listening skills: “something that women intuitively understand, but that most men don’t, is the power of opening up and sharing upset feelings to relieve stress.” More often than not, men don’t have the support system or tools to have this type of discussion.
If they did share their emotions with someone in their life, there’s a good chance it was that same ex-girlfriend. This can make any kind of pain or loss a further isolating experience, not to mention the emotional burden it can place on women.
Dr. Hart explained that men and women face different problems in that respect. Women are not encouraged to be independent, self-sufficient, and a whole host of other qualities. Men are told to be independent at the expense of everything else. Suck it up, power through, and if you absolutely must admit to struggling, fix it.
“In our society, there is only one way to perform traditional masculinity and it does not leave room for weakness, or asking for help,” Dr. Hart explained. If men do decide to open up, they’re still expected to fix the problem. There’s very little room to just feel the emotions.
This is mirrored in Matt and Addison’s experience. Their turning points came when they found the space to feel and process their emotions. Matt decided that he needed to make that space more widely accessible. In April 2019, Matt quit his job, sold his house, and began working on tethr, the first peer-to-peer support community for anyone who identifies as male. Addison quickly followed suit. It didn’t take Matt long to find others who connected with his mission. He started conversations about the need in men’s mental health as frequently as possible. Inspired by tethr’s goals, Burke White and Denny Park joined as the technical co-founders and the app launched the next year.
The idea that to be masculine one must be stoic and independent contributes to the underutilization of mental health resources as well. A sexist society insists that men reject anything feminine — even something as fundamental as vulnerability. In this way, creating the space for men to be vulnerable, to express their emotions, is ultimately part of dismantling traditional masculinity. “It has to be feminist work,” said Dr. Hart. When men experience and articulate their full range of emotions, it improves their own lives and the lives of those around them.
“I don’t think everyone needs to go into paid psychotherapy,” Dr. Hart said. There must be other, low-barrier access options available.
It’s true that not everyone needs therapy, nor would that be a feasible solution. There are 15.1 million men over the age of 18 in Canada. In 2018, there were approximately 18,800 psychologists. There’s also only 8760 hours in a year. With 1 in every 5 Canadians experiencing a mental health problem or illness each year, traditional talk-therapy alone cannot meet the demand even if it was the right solution for every problem.
“Being a part of a community is beneficial to anyone’s mental health. We evolved to be a social species,” Dr. Whitley explained. “We do know that people who are isolated and lonely have much worse mental health and that’s a risk factor for suicide and also for depression and substance use.”
Everyone deserves access to community, support, and empathy.