Clinical Psychologist and Artivist Mthetho Tshemese aka The Village Shrink speaks openly about his Mental Health challenges, including battling depression "If, as a Xhosa man, I can break the mould in seeking mental health support and can accept the very real benefits of being in therapy, I think you can too." Today he guides us through some of the things that may be holding us back from better mental health, and the things that can help us rise.
Firstly, you may not know that you need help
You might not even recognise that you may be having mental health difficulties. If we look at depression as an example, many of us don’t know what it feels like. And more than that, our masculinity can even mask depression. Before I could even consider that I was struggling with depression, all I knew was that I felt aggression and irritation. But there are also other signs we can watch out for.
Watch your sleeping patterns. Are you sleeping too much? Too little? How is your energy? Depression can be quite immobilising at times. How are you coping with day-to-day challenges? Are you feeling overwhelmed? How have you been feeling over the last month?
These are questions we must ask ourselves. We've got to be both vigilant and reflective because too many of us fall into the patriarchal trap of not allowing ourselves to be human, to be vulnerable, or to understand our own emotions.
You may see it as a weakness
That patriarchal trap I’m talking about is the way we’ve been stripped of our humanity. I often say “men are not born, men are made”. When we are raised as boys, we are conditioned, engineered, and socialised; made ready to perform the functions expected of us as men. And often that means to be the provider, to be the protector, to be strong.
We normally don’t even see a doctor until we are heavily symptomatic, never mind a mental health practitioner. We see mental health difficulties as a vulnerability, as a weakness, and so we don’t allow ourselves to acknowledge it. But I’m here to tell you that mental health is mental wealth.
So here are a few more questions you can ask yourself right now. What do you do when life’s pressures and stressors overwhelm you? Do you have any healthy coping mechanisms? For example, I journal, or I write a poem, I may go to the studio and record a song, or I read, or sleep. What can you do to bring yourself back into balance?
You may not even be sure what mental health really is
Mental health is not the absence of stress or struggle. The World Health Organization gives us a good description of what mental health looks like, and I’ll give you a brief overview of it now. There are three components to mental health: the first is to pursue your potential, the second is to build the skills to deal with day-to-day challenges, and the third is your contribution to the community in a way that works for you.
Let’s break those down.
The first component is to pursue your potential, and by that I mean your true potential. Not what you were raised to be, but who you want to be. There may not have been much room for negotiation between the two before today, so now I compel you to ask yourself: how much of who you are right now, or who you think you are, is actually a consequence of what you were raised to be?
I've come to the conclusion that many of us men are living a very unconscious life, where we conform to expectations without really engaging our own self. So ask yourself, “Wait a minute, is my life even what I want it to be?”
For our own mental health, we must learn to enjoy our lives in a meaningful way. Find purpose outside of what is expected of you. Explore what could make you happy, and take it one small step at a time.
Build your own toolbox of healthy coping mechanisms
There will always be a certain amount of stress that comes with modern day life, and that’s why the second component of mental health is to build the skills to deal with day-to-day challenges.
And here’s where I come in with a warning for you: be wary of the things you might be doing to numb your pain. There is no judgement here, and often our behaviours are unconscious, but I urge you to start observing how you are managing conflict and handling stress. It can help to look at which desires we’re financing most. Are we buying things like alcohol to numb our pain?
We all need to build our own toolboxes of healthy coping mechanisms – and I say “build” because we don’t just wake up with these skills. That’s why it’s always a good plan of action to see a therapist; they are the ones who can really help us build those skills.
It also helps to be more pragmatic about how we can incorporate mental health into our lives. Just as you might dedicate some time towards being outdoors, pursuing your hobbies, or being physically active, you also need to dedicate some time towards your mental health. Even if that’s just one day a month. That’s just 12 days a year – you can do that, right?
That one day a month is your time to access mental health care. Sit with a therapist who can help you clear your head and shift your perspectives, who can help you connect with the little boy you once were and find a healthy way to give him the things he needed but didn’t get growing up. This is the space where you can give that little boy the psychological hug he needs, where you can find out how to forgive yourself, where you can learn what you need to let go of, what you need to reward yourself for, and to honour how far you have come.
Keep the conversation going in your community
The third component of mental health is community. And one of the most powerful ways we can contribute to our community is to be there for each other. Especially as men, we need to create the language and the safe space to have these important conversations.
You might be asking, “How do you expect us to be able to communicate and create a language for our feelings when we were not encouraged to talk about vulnerability?” And this is when I say, “If, as a Xhosa man, I can break the mould in seeking mental health support and can accept the very real benefits of being in therapy, I think you can too.”
Too many of us suffer in silence. We need to break the stigma. We need to have open conversations and create safe spaces in our friendships. When we meet, we must check in with each other. Take the time to share our stories and listen to each other. We must listen when someone says they’re feeling overwhelmed or “not okay”. We must pay attention when someone starts isolating themselves.
And we must recognise the courage it takes when someone tells us they are not okay. Because that is courage. It is not weakness. And I will say it again: there is no shame in experiencing mental health difficulties. These conversations we have with each other can be a powerful mental health resource in a country very clearly lacking.
Be kind to yourself
In all this, learn to be kind to yourself. Looking back, I can see how horrible I had been to myself, so I too am learning self-compassion. I'm learning to practice gratitude. And regardless of the situation, I’m learning to always look for something good, even if it's a simple lesson or a new way of looking at things.
"From man to man, I say be courageous in your vulnerability. Be intentional in your pursuit of purpose, and be deliberate about investing in your own mental health."