I still remember the first time I heard those sharp words. I’m 24 now but these words still manage to make me feel uneasy: “man-up”, “grow some balls” and “stop acting like a girl”.
All phrases thrown at me from ever since I could remember. The message was: you’re a boy, so get on with it.
Expressing emotions as a boy or a man – especially those considered as being more “feminine” – hold such negative connotations in our society. Men have historically been held to a certain standard, shaming us into hiding any type of emotionality that could be seen as a weakness.
This impacts severely on our mental health. Add onto this the pressures on gay and bisexual men to conform to straight expectations of masculinity, and the pressure grows even more.
The pressure to hide how you’re feeling can make you feel incredibly isolated. It’s no wonder then that half of gay boys (46%) and bisexual young people (54%) experience loneliness on a daily basis, according to a report by Just Like Us, the LGBTQ+ young people’s charity. 71% of gay boys also said their mental health has worsened in the pandemic, compared to 49% of their non-LGBTQ+ peers.
As a bisexual man that has been on a significant journey with mental health, I can look back and see how growing up with the pressure to conform to masculinity and heterosexual standards of how I should behave also impacted my mental health.
We’ve all heard the “boys don’t cry” concept. It’s one I remember being aware of from when I was a really young child. In the school playground, I was told to “suck it up” and “get over it”. But why wasn’t I being comforted when I expressed a normal emotional response from falling and hurting myself?
Growing up, I had to deal not only with the homophobia in school and everyday British life, but also in my own home life. I was also navigating my culture as someone with roots from Kosovo. Navigating this as a young child, then a teenager, all took their toll on my mental health.
I started experiencing panic attacks when I was around 12 years old. I remember describing them to my mother as ‘I can’t breathe, and I feel dizzy’ because I truly didn’t have the language to properly vocalise what I was feeling and going through.
I had no idea that men could even experience mental health issues at all. I was also experiencing this at a time where I was still trying to make sense of my own sexual orientation, against the backdrop of a culture that told me I couldn’t be Kosovar Albanian if I was LGBTQ+, and that I would have to give up my faith as a Muslim.
The pressure of all these social expectations chipped away at my mental health, and these few and far between panic attacks became more frequent and intense. Although I love my parents, their response of, “You have it so easy nowadays why are you sad or stressed?” didn’t help.
In hindsight, I know my parents didn’t mean any harm. Their lives were impacted by being made refugees in their mid-20s due to the breakdown of the former Yugoslavia. So, I understand why my parents couldn’t comprehend why their son, who was born in London with all the privileges they didn’t have, couldn’t just simply be happy.
But that’s just it, that’s the nature of mental health – it does not ask nor care about what external privileges you have. It doesn’t discriminate in that way.
My battles were intensified by the internalised battle I was having with my multifaceted identities, including being LGBTQ+. I was coming to terms with being a man and what that meant in our society as well as being bisexual, my faith and my heritage all at once.
In research by Just Like Us, it was found that LGBTQ+ young people are three times more likely to self-harm, also they are twice as likely to have depression, anxiety and panic attacks as well worry about their mental health daily.
I ended up dealing with panic disorder, depersonalisation disorder and generalised anxiety disorder alone for 10 years before seeking medical help. This is because those phrases I mentioned – “man-up”, “grow some balls” and “stop acting like a girl” – perpetually rang in my ears, clouding my mind and my judgement.
The cultural pressures and societal shame really scarred me. I still remember my mother telling me not to tell anyone about what I was experiencing. While she never gave me a reason as to why, I know it had to do with the continual culture of shame around men discussing their emotions and mental health within my culture.
But despite all these challenges, I got the help I needed, even if this wasn’t a linear process. The NHS mental health services were and are severely underfunded, but I truthfully believe that I would not be here without them.
The help I received from therapists who approached me as a person and not as an expectation, allowed myself to express, clarify and vocalise what I had been keeping inside for so long.
As well as Pride, the month of June marks Men’s Mental Health Awareness, a time to bring representation to the issues that men face in terms of their emotional and mental wellbeing. As I experienced, there is a real need to be more inclusive and intersectional in our approach to mental health.
If you’re struggling, please reach out to Switchboard or Samaritans. Do not allow those societal expectations to make you feel ashamed – I’m so glad I reached out and I hope you do too.
Arbër is a volunteer with Just Like Us. Donate to support LGBTQ+ young people this Pride.