Emotional powder kegs: When men choose to suffer in silence

Men experience the full range of human emotions. [iStockphoto]

For too long, there has been a misconception that men don’t have feelings - or at least, not to the same degree as women.

The reality is starkly different: men experience the full range of human emotions, from happiness to sadness, anger to heartbreak. Yet all too often, they remain silent, battling their inner turmoil alone.

Jackson Mwanje, a journalist and a father of two, admits he struggles to open up about his problems and mental health, even with his wife.

“Telling my wife and my mother about my issues doesn’t make sense to me, knowing they likely can’t help,” explains Mwanje, 45.

“So, I choose to stay quiet.”

Mwanje finds it equally difficult to be open with his friends. He may confide in just one or two, not because he expects solutions, but so that “in case something happens to me, at least those friends know I shared certain issues with them.”

According to psychologist Dr Chris Lymo, men are generally not socialised to share feelings the way women do. But they are wired to share emotions; the norms of masculinity just make it more difficult.

“I think saying they don’t like sharing is a presumption. Men are generally not socialised to share. They are wired to share; just not the way women would have them share,” he says.

The consequences of this silence have been devastating. Across communities, men are suffering from mental health issues like depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation at alarming rates.

The psychologist notes that there are countless reasons why men contemplate suicide, reasons as unique as each individual’s struggles.

However, he says when speaking to those grappling with suicidal thoughts, one overarching theme emerges: They don’t actually want to die - they just want to end their pain.

“The anguish and turmoil feel inescapable. While choosing to end one’s life may seem like an act of cowardice from the outside, those facing that decision often see it as the ultimate act of courage to stop their suffering,” he says.

Over the past two decades, male suicide rates have been on a disturbing rise globally. The World Health Organisation reports that the number of men dying by suicide is double that of women - a staggering 12.6 per 100,000 men compared to 5.4 per 100,000 for females.

In 2019 alone, 9.1 out of every 100,000 Kenyan men died by suicide, while the rate for women was 3.2 per 100,000, according to World Bank statistics.

“In my counselling sessions, the men who come to share openly what’s going on in their lives and what’s not working. We establish what they want from therapy and my job is to shed light on what does not align with their goals. I provide clarity often with great outcomes,” says Dr Lymo.

He notes the reasons are as varied as the individuals themselves - financial struggles, family pressures, intimacy issues, feelings of inadequacy and failure to meet societal expectations of success.

T Muga, an analyst at Spice FM and a counsellor at Standard Group, notes the most common issues affecting men revolve around money or the lack of it.

“Most men manage money poorly and live beyond their means. When you add family responsibilities, the pressure piles up. The male ego and ignorance then prevent them from seeking the help they need,” he says.

For some men, the roots of their mental anguish can be traced back to rigid traditional gender norms that urge them to “man up” and suffer in silence.

According to Senior Pastor Walter Bulimu, a marriage and Family counsellor, among the issues affecting men are family expectations, conjugal rights and lack of societal influence.

“Some men expected to gain some things when they got married, but they did not at that particular time,” he says.

Thus, he adds, for not achieving some of their marital goals, they start getting depressed. He says some wives use sex as a weapon, which makes men depressed that they are being denied their rights.  

Pastor Bulimu explains that the issues affecting men are more mental not spiritual.

“The issues affecting men are more mental because spirituality is a way of life but mentally affects the whole person,” he says.

He says rigid traditional notions of masculinity that demand that men must be “strong” and never show vulnerability or “weakness” stifle emotions and cause significant psychological harm.

“Traditionally, men are taught to be strong, not to speak about their problems or show weakness,” he says.

However, Pastor Bulimu explains, it would be an oversimplification to blame shifting values alone.

An individual’s upbringing and personal journey of self-discovery in defining their own masculinity arguably play an even larger role.

“If one is not taught healthy coping mechanisms for stress, loss, and life’s inevitable challenges, they may turn to unhealthy or even dangerous solutions like suicide when struggles feel insurmountable,” he says.

“This lack of emotional toolkit frequently has roots in childhood household dynamics.”

According to Onyango Otieno, a trauma coach who specializes in men’s mental health issues, the state of men’s mental wellbeing is reaching crisis levels.

“A high number of the men who have come to me grew up in abusive or emotionally distant homes, particularly with absentee or violent fathers,” he says.

He adds that this has created identity crises that spill over into other areas of their adult lives. 

Onyango notes that issues around sexuality and sexual identity are often suppressed due to cultural stigma.

“Men fear the judgment of opening up about these deeply personal issues,” he says.

Most critically, Onyango predicts the mental health crisis among men will only worsen in the coming decades if actionable solutions are not prioritized.

He calls for emotionally supportive male peer groups, increased funding for men’s counselling programmes, and spaces where men can question norms around masculinity without ridicule.

He advocates for empathy over judgment, recognizing that all people are complex work-in-progress.

Ultimately, Pastor Bulimu says, when someone feels so anguished that ending their life seems the only way to stop the pain, it is a human tragedy - not a sign of cowardice or selfishness.

“While the reasons may be deeply personal, I discourage labelling suicide as “the weak way out”. If anything, choosing to die by suicide when suffering so immensely could be viewed as an act of misguided courage,” he says.

“The ones left behind are hit hardest by such permanent decisions made in temporary moments of darkness.”

According to Dr Lymo, we cannot ignore that our choices reverberate through the lives of others, adding that problems never arise in a vacuum.

“When men face seemingly insurmountable crises, there is an unfair expectation that solving them falls solely on their shoulders,” he says.

He notes: “This is a fundamentally flawed perspective. No one is truly self-made, despite society celebrating a minority of outwardly successful men.”

“We are all molded by the world around us to some degree,” says the psychologist.