For decades, the ‘angry young man’ trope has been glorified to describe the sort of hulking masculinity that ‘real men’ had to aspire to. This obsession has been reflected in pop-culture — especially in Bollywood films and long-running tv shows. Here, men can only be ‘real men’ if they avoid situations involving too many feelings and toughen up and stay that way.
For years, men have also been criticised for things that seem inherently gender-neutral — for choosing professions such as nursing or dancing, for choosing to stay at home to care for their children. This even extends to some activities of leisure. In Anubhuti Kashyap’s recent film Doctor G, the character of Dr Uday Gupta played by Ayushmann Khurrana says, “humare mohalle me ladke cricket khelte hain aur ladkiyan badminton”.
In reality, this affects men adversely. The pressure to adhere to these stereotypical roles has promoted an unhealthy image of how men should act, be it in intimate relationships or in social settings. This includes not showing signs of distress or having conversations around mental or physical stress or burdens.
This tends to leave men feeling isolated, puts a strain on their relationships, and gives rise to loneliness and mental health problems. As per news reports earlier this year, an internal report published by the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment in early 2021, had said that over 70% of callers to India’s national mental health helpline, KIRAN (1800-599-0019), since its launch, were men.
“The act of expressing love, or sharing personal feelings is often deemed as being feminine,” says Shruti Shah, a counsellor, psychologist and psychotherapist, who has a Master’s degree in Psychology from the University of Mumbai and a Diploma in Integrative Counselling.
She adds that men are “not taught to vocalise their feelings” and that “it’s not surprising” given how we act “surprised, or worse, chide them” when boys or men cry or get vulnerable. Shah says this acts as a hurdle when “men try to potentially create close relationships.”
“I do think that if I was taught to be more vulnerable, I would be more compassionate, and today, I wouldn’t be feeling lonely,” says Mumbai-based 46-year-old Amol Jain. “(When I watch some) films about men reconnecting (with old male friends) and travelling together (I just) feel worse. The real world doesn’t work this way — I don’t know any guy who would just call up his guy friends whom he hasn’t spoken to in years, and demand that they all take a trip together to bond.”
There are virtually no statistics to go by, but narrative evidence points to a problem that is exponentially growing. Eleven out of 15 men spoken to for this article admitted that they would rather sit at home watching movies or playing video games alone than talk about what was going on inside of them in terms of feelings or emotions.
“I’m guilty of teaching my son not to cry,” says Mumbai-based 72-year-old Bhavana Mehta. “We were not as ‘aware’ of things as the generations of today are. For me, growing up, men and women had a set of roles that complemented each other, and that’s how the world worked. Today, I know I am wrong but it’s too late for (my son) to change. He looks at the world with the same glasses that I had. Luckily, his wife is raising my grand-children as equals.”
While these are slight glimmers of hope, the steps to reverse or repair any current alienation and isolation can be within reach. “Invest in your friendships,” urges Shah. “Join a walking or outdoor exercise groups… getting to know neighbours or even using social media to re-connect with old friends can go a long way.”
Even seemingly small acts of connection can help make positive changes in male loneliness and mental health. As the stigma around male loneliness melts away, more men ought to feel comfortable in opening up about issues that are affecting them.
Richa Sheth is a freelance writer based in Pune. She explores complexities within human interactions and relationships.