Men, don’t suffer depression in silence

Johnstone Abwao, a mental health champion, during the interview on July 1, 2022, at a Nairobi hotel.

Photo credit: Moraa Obiria | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • A study that found men were weighed down with “feelings of fear, shame, embarrassment, guilt, and isolation”.
  • One Johnstone Abwao thought he would get over depression on his own.

Johnstone Abwao thought he would get over depression on his own.

“I am a man. I should toughen up,” he told himself, a harmful perception of masculinity that ends up hurting the men even more.

He never shared his predicaments with anyone for fear of stigma and people misunderstanding him because our society has assumed “men don’t have mental issues.”

His mental health problem started in 2013 when he joined Multimedia University to pursue a diploma in information technology.

Six months later, things fell apart.

“I had little money to meet all my expenses. There was too much peer influence. I also felt like the university was not meeting my learning expectations,” shares Mr Abwao.

The Kisumu native first stepped foot in Nairobi in 2013 when he came for his university studies.

“It was a totally new environment. I felt overwhelmed. The pressure was too much, but I would not open up to anybody because of fear, so I turned to alcohol to relieve,” he narrates.

The alcohol addiction got worse with time and he finally dropped out in 2015. But his aunt, who lived in Kibra, did not give up on him. She welcomed him into her house and kept on counselling him to stop abusing alcohol. All the while, he still kept to himself what was eating him up.

His drinking habit went on until December 2018, when he felt “this is enough. I need to pull myself out of this mess.”

And so he just walked into a local non-governmental organisation in Kibra and asked for a job.

Luckily, they took him in as a social worker. In his work, he interacted with a psychologist, who got to understand his problem. For the next one month, the psychologist helped him rediscover himself and find his inner strength.

The psychologist diagnosed him with mild depression.

“It was a point of self-reflection for me,” he says of the therapy.

“I told myself: ‘Hey, Johnstone, if you don’t act now, you will actually go crazy.’”

Now a mental health champion, Mr Abwao has learnt a few things about remaining mentally healthy.

“I replaced alcohol with sugarless coffee. I put on music and dance. I take long walks and guided meditation.Also, I always treat myself to a delicious meal,” he says with a burst of laughter.

He also has three people, two mentors and a friend, in whom he confides.

“I open up to them because I trust them and I know they can keep my secrets,” he says.

“Men always ask themselves ‘whom can we trust with our problems?’ It is a big challenge to men,” he notes.

And they seek trusted friends in men.

“Men are comfortable confiding in another man. They feel like it (a mental issue) is a personal problem that they should hold so dearly. They don’t realise that it is a baby that is growing and by the time it wants to be born, they start fighting the baby.”

A study published in the American Journal of Men’s Health last February in which researchers reviewed 21 studies on men’s experiences of mental illness stigma in the past decade, found men were weighed down with “feelings of fear, shame, embarrassment, guilt, and isolation”.

“This self-stigma was driven by the stigmatising attitudes of peers, colleagues, family, health professionals, and members of the wider community. A common experience was that men believed people negatively stereotyped those with mental illness as weak and failures,” reads part of the study.

Another 2018 study published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry on ‘Men’s Mental Health: Social Determinants and Implications for Services’ recommends a “multi-pronged public health-inspired approach to improving men’s mental health.”