**Trigger Warning- Pregnancy Loss **
“There’s no crying in baseball.”
Tom Hank’s iconic line as manager Jimmy Dugan in the 1992 movie, A League of Their Own, personifies the long-indoctrinated belief that showing emotion is inherently bad. While directed towards women in the film, it sheds light upon a greater issue facing so many men in our nation today.
The Toxic Masculinity Culture:
Six million men are impacted by depression in the U.S. every year. While the overall prevalence of mental illness in males is statistically lower, men are still suffering in high numbers (Mental Health in America [MHA], 2020). Despite being two to three times more likely to misuse drugs and dying more frequently due to alcohol-related causes than women, men are far less likely to seek treatment, often citing stigma as a barrier to mental health care (Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, 2017). Mental illness stigma is deeply rooted in the grave and archaic misperception that mental disorders are synonymous with weak character, completely disregarding empirical evidence supporting the fact that people who have a mental illness, have a medical condition (American Psychiatric Association [APA], 2023).
Chris Vetter, a lifelong runner and mental health advocate, found Still I Run, in part, to break down the barriers men face when it comes to talking about mental health. Despite the compelling statistics surrounding the prevalence of male mental illness, there is a lack of open conversation regarding the mental illness stigma men experience.
As Vetter reflects, he, like many of his male friends, was raised in the era of masculinity and strength being synonymous with not being allowed to show emotion. Chris faced the “brutality” of adolescence and young adulthood, expected to succeed athletically, academically, and interpersonally while navigating other unavoidable consequences of being human–like puberty–without learning how to deal with feelings and emotions.
As he recounts, not talking about the impact of that kind of pressure at a young age leads to bad habits (read: maladaptive coping). In his 20s, he describes feeling like “the walls were caving in and [his] heart was going to explode…[he] took an ambulance because [his] parents and [he] did not know what was going on.”
Today, Chris has a better understanding of what happened to him back then as he continues to challenge stigma-related barriers through his own mental health journey. For many men, the physiological side effects of mental health conditions such as digestive issues, headaches, or those felt in the panic attacks described by Chris, are what lead men to seek help.
Interestingly, anger and irritability are often overlooked as hallmark signs of depression in men, potentially because this differs greatly from how many women present. Either way, if we could instill in young children that it is ok to feel emotional, to talk about feelings openly, and to ask for help without fear of criticism, could we change the narrative for men down the road? Chris thinks so. We need to instill in our children, at a young age, that it is NORMAL to feel emotional, and it is OK to ask for help.
Learn to see the Gift in the Adversity:
Chris ran his first marathon with Still I Run in 2022. In the six weeks prior to the marathon, he and his wife lost their first pregnancy at 20 weeks. While “hard” is undoubtedly an understatement, Chris also found it synchronous to run for mental health while his and his family’s mental health took a veritable beating.
Despite the devastation and feeling of helplessness (another sign of male depression) so many men face in this situation, Chris carried on and returned to therapy for the third time in his 30s because while he understands there is no one-size-fits-all solution, he also knows that bottling emotions will eventually catch up to you.
Reducing the Stigma:
Through Chris’s experience thus far, one thing in particular stands out to him with Still I Run. After the NYC Marathon, Chris noticed something miraculous that reaches far beyond running for mental health. The Still I Run GroupMe chat of NYC marathon runners continued on well after the race and fostered a safe community for everyone to discuss life and upcoming races openly. Women in his age group (30-35) seemed effortlessly at ease while talking openly about emotions with others; a goal Chris now strives for with his own friends and men in general.
Too often, men find safety and comfort in surface-level conversations, even with their closest friends. Instead of being close, Chris has found it often boils down to knowing nothing about your best friends because you don’t understand what they may be withholding. To address this frequently male phenomenon, Chris encourages men to “ask the wrong question at the right time.” By asking hard questions in comfortable environments, men can work towards establishing a deeper, more open connection with one another. Instead of this being perceived as weak, it allows your friends to learn more about you, and for men, a connection can grow out of knowledge of a shared experience.
“Sure, no one wants to say they’re in therapy…but it will make you feel better and more aware of your stressors…and more OK talking to someone about them,” Chris suggests. The notion that you are not alone in a feeling because someone else is willing to admit they’ve lived it can be invaluable in the journey towards open, honest, and nonjudgmental communication among men. In short, Chris recognized the power of community in breaking down the mental health stigma for everyone, including men.
Its Ok to Ask for Help:
Today, Chris is committed to building upon the impact of open communication, support, and community Still I Run has fostered. He hopes to pursue partnerships with like-minded brands to continue breaking down barriers to asking for help.
While we are still on the path to normalizing treatment for mental illnesses, many still believe diagnosable disorders, such as depression, are simply a lack of mental toughness. For men who are too often conditioned from a young age to believe that toughness equals manliness, the results can quite literally be deadly.
If you suffer or have suffered from mental health issues, taking a courageous step forward through sharing your experiences like–Chris has today–can help normalize the discussion, reduce the stigma, and help our society recognize that mental health IS health.