In honor of mens’ mental health month (November)
I have been writing about my anxiety and my mental health battles for around 15 years now. Sometimes people ask me if I feel comfortable doing that or if it’s helped me at all. My answer is clear and direct: Writing about my mental health battles has helped me feel free and accepted, which makes it easier for me to grow. I write this for a culture that still stigmatizes men’s mental health, especially within Christian circles. “Men are supposed to be strong. Men need to portray stability for their families. God hasn’t given us a Spirit of fear, so we shouldn’t deal with anxiety. And if the joy of the Lord is our strength, we shouldn’t deal with depression either.” What’s the effect of mantras like these? Problems . . . lots of them.
According to a recent study, one in ten men struggles with anxiety or depression, but less than half of these seek help. Men die 3.5 times more often than women from suicide. They’re also twice as likely to binge drink. Perhaps most disturbing, another study found that 45% of men believe their mental health problems will resolve themselves, and so they admit to never talking to anyone else about their issues. In light of those truths, I want to encourage my brothers across the globe with a simple message: know yourself and speak. But I’m going to show you that this “knowing yourself” means a lot more than casual introspection.
Everyone’s heard the philosophical aphorism, “Know thyself” (gnōthi seauton), though its origin seems beyond tracing out. Dozens of ancient Greeks have used the expression, many attributing it to different sources. But that doesn’t matter, for our purposes. What does matter is what it means. Among the scads of meanings we might give to the expression, there’s one I’ll focus on in relation to men’s mental health: know who you really are, not just who you want to be.
This call is all-inclusive. Yes, know your likes and dislikes, your passions and pleasures, your dreams and ambitions. But it doesn’t end there, with the pretty things. It applies to the ugly things, too. Know your weaknesses, your shortcomings, your habits of doubt, your tendency to fall into turmoil at the thought of _______ (fill in the blank).
Get specific. Know your habit to constantly inflate and protect your own ego in casual conversation. Know your proclivity to lie to strangers and acquaintances in order to feel more “normal.” Know your ridiculous pattern of thinking about all the ways you’ll have a panic attack and land in a hospital bed when anyone mentions anything outside of your comfort zone. Know who you really are—right now—not just who you want or dream to be.
Like many others, I’ve tended to live much of my life with the assumption that I shouldn’t be completely open about who I am in the presence of others, or even in the presence of myself. Being honest is one thing (telling others the truth about things outside of myself), but being open is another. Sometimes I feel like an ancient book that hasn’t been read for a century. Do I really want to crack my own spine, lay myself flat on a table, and read what’s inside? Do I really want to be open about what’s going on there?
Actually . . . yes. And the reason why is bound up with who I am as a speaking creature.
There’s no shortage of articles and books that talk about who we really are as humans. My take on this is to focus on language. In a recent article, I wrote that we are creatures made to speak, specifically with God and our fellow creatures. One truth embedded in this mystery is that revelation is an inherent good for us. And it makes theological sense. God voluntarily reveals himself to his creatures. We’re made in his image, so we’re made to reveal ourselves voluntarily to him and to others. This is what it means to be created for communion. Self-revelation is good. It’s what we were made for.
This also aligns with who I am as a creature recreated in Christ. I am free to be open with myself and others because I’ve been openly and fully accepted by my heavenly Father in Christ. That doesn’t mean God has accepted or overlooked my sins and shortcomings; it means that he’s redeemed me from them, and his Spirit is ever present to remind me who I am in Christ. Put differently, Christ is God’s self-revelation for me. Because I’m openly accepted on his behalf, I offer my self back to him to grow in Christlikeness. This offering back of self is a sort of self-revelation on the creaturely side. So, self-revelation is what we’re remade for. Again, this is bound up with being a communion-seeking creature.
Self-Concealing and Mental Health
Now consider the opposite. Self-concealing, hiding, is . . . an evil. Let that sit with you for a minute. Hiding, even from ourselves, is antithetical to our identity as creatures made for communion with God and others. What’s the first thing that Adam and Eve did after their identity was marred by rebellion? They did the thing antithetical to their identity: they hid themselves. They revoked communion. They stopped speaking. If self-revelation leads to communion, self-concealing leads to isolation and despair.
This is why that 45% figure really bothers me. Half of the men who struggle with mental illness believe that hiding is better than being open, than revealing themselves, than knowing who they really are. Even theologically speaking (let alone the psychology and physiology), this is bound to exacerbate mental health problems. No good can come from self-concealing. We are called to a life of open sharing.
I’m a big advocate of counseling, since I’ve benefited from it firsthand. But I’m also a big advocate of it because it aligns with my biblical beliefs about who we are. If we follow the ancient wisdom to know ourselves as we are, with all of our mental anguish and turmoil, and if we complement that wisdom with speaking to others, we’ll be in a much better place. We’ll be free to grow even more in Christlikeness.
If you’re struggling with mental health, or even suspect that you might be, I’m asking you to talk to someone. Know who you really are right now, and share that with someone you trust deeply. Know yourself and speak. More good can come from that than you’ll ever imagine.
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