Mental Musings: Actually, I’m having a tough time

Theo Richter

This week I invited my friend, Theo Richter `23.5, someone whom I frequently share my mental musings with, to guest write for my column! 


Our minds can be scary spaces full of ideas and images we would rather not think of or see. Following the events on campus the past couple weeks, I have been reminded of how often throughout my life I have felt lost in the dark abyss of my mind, unable to differentiate my thoughts from the mental secretions of my depression — an experience I think many people on campus feel but are hesitant to talk about, especially men.

As much as we tell ourselves that the stigma is depleting, it just isn’t. Men, especially male athletes, don’t even talk about stress, much less suicidal ideation. We don’t want to come off as being “soft.” Not checking in on a friend for fear of it being interpreted as soft highlights the way in which mental health stigma has joined forces with hegemonic masculinity to prevent male athletes from having open dialogues with one another about mental health. 

As an athlete myself, I have experienced the ways that unhealthy forms of masculinity infiltrate into sports. I have been in therapy learning how to negotiate life with my brain for ten years, but for over five of those years, I was too embarrassed and ashamed to tell anyone that I saw a therapist. It was another four years before I felt comfortable sharing my struggles with anyone other than my parents and therapist. When I finally did, it was by no means easy, but I felt I needed to because hiding such a large part of myself prevented me from having authentic relationships with the people in my life. I was in therapy for nine years before finally feeling able to speak about my experiences with mental illness. That is wack! So very wack! So incredibly wack that I think the employment of an expletive would be fitting, but I don’t think that can be published, so I’ll stick with wack. 

Here I am, a twenty-one-year-old man that has been in therapy for a decade, and it has taken me almost that long to wriggle out from under the muck and sludge that is mental health stigma. You don’t have to be a sociologist to see that the character traits associated with traditional masculinity create a barrier for men who want to share their mental health struggles. From a young age, I had coaches telling me not to cry on the field or the court — instead, they encouraged me to keep my emotions bottled up and to release them through physical exertion alone. Yet, exercise is not a cure, and many male athletes are left to process frightening thoughts alone when they shouldn’t have to.

So what can we do? We must acknowledge the ongoing mental health stigma and work hard to fight it. Generally, male athletes are not conditioned to talk openly about their feelings. That’s why it’s so important that we create space for male athletes to have these conversations with each other. As a student athlete mentor for the men’s track and field team, I try to build relationships with my teammates so they can feel comfortable coming to me with any problems they may have. At the end of the day, however, not all of my teammates may want to talk to me about how they are truly doing, but they might tell their friends. So, ask your friends. Let them know you are there. Just to be clear, I’m not talking about a casual “how’s it going?” in the hallways. I’m urging you to sit down with your close friends in a private setting and ask them how they are doing. Tell them that you care about them and let them know if you are worried for them. Share your own experiences in the hopes of creating space for them to share their own. Unfortunately, they will probably say they are fine the first time, even if it’s not true. That’s what I would have said when I was struggling with anxiety, OCD and depression in high school, but nobody asked me. If my friends had asked, I think that I would have been willing to open up to them, at least eventually. That is to say, the first conversation you have like this might not seem to have any impact, and the second one might not either, but what you are doing here is telling the people in your life that you care about them and that you are there to listen whenever they want to share with you. They might never want to share with you, but maybe you are the person that makes them realize that it is okay to share if they so choose.

We must create more spaces for men to communicate about their mental health issues. We need men to feel more comfortable asking fellow men if they are doing alright, and we need men who are struggling to feel comfortable enough to say, “no, actually, I’m having a tough time.” We have such a long way to go before getting to this point. Still, I believe that acknowledging the very real presence of stigma around mental illness, especially the stigma that men feel, is a big step toward creating spaces for men to have open conversations with one another about their struggles. I plan to advocate for and create these spaces at Grinnell, but the stigma around mental illness and manifestations of “traditional” forms of masculinity can’t be faced alone. So, I’d like to ask you one more time to look out for your friends, especially your male-identifying friends, because feeling the support of others can make all the difference.