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Why is it so difficult to talk about Filipino men’s mental health?

By Andrea Panaligan Published Dec 31, 2021 5:00 am

Men will do anything but go to therapy. This is a long-running internet joke that seems to gain more notoriety the longer it stays in our meme lexicon. A bad date with a pretentious history nerd is succinctly summed up by a tweet that declares, “Men will literally learn everything about ancient Rome instead of going to therapy”; the news of a Batman remake is ratio’d by a quote retweet saying, “Men will literally dress up like a bat and fight costumed villains by night instead of going to therapy.”

The newest iteration is a viral photo of American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman with the text, “The masculine urge to do anything but go to therapy” emblazoned across it. While the tweet is, as the kids say, doing numbers, plenty of men took to the replies to share the very real barriers they face in trying to go to therapy.

“It’s actually crazy to assume that men who traditionally felt unable to emotionally express themselves would just transition easily into therapy and therapy options. I think it’ll just take some time,” one user said.

The Filipino male’s approach to mental health is often subject to hegemonic masculine ideals.

This difficulty expressing emotion is something many Filipino men experience as well. Eli, 22, said they were raised to perceive emotions as “icky” and to keep it to themselves. Charles, 22, feels guilty that he is selfishly “dumping” his feelings on others. Lawrence, 25, doesn’t want to bother anyone by talking about what he feels. John, 21, is sometimes told by family and friends that he can quickly overcome any negative feelings because he’s a man. Others find it hard to find the words to explain their feelings, or they are told they must simply pray it away. 

This is disappointing to hear considering mental illness is the third most common disability in the Philippines, with six million Filipinos living with depression and anxiety. The country also has the third-highest rate of mental disorders in the Western Pacific. Despite its prevalence, mental illness is still culturally deemed non-existent or something to be ashamed of.

When I was growing up, I normally heard the phrase, ‘Kalalaki mong tao’ get thrown around. It’s normally followed by stereotypical female characteristics like ‘iyakin,’ ‘takot’ and ‘malambot.’

That said, while mental health stigma is rife in the Philippines regardless of gender, the Filipino male’s approach to mental health is often subject not just to mainstream Filipino mores but also to hegemonic masculine ideals.

“When I was growing up, I normally heard the phrase, ‘Kalalaki mong tao’ get thrown around. It’s normally followed by stereotypical female characteristics like ‘iyakin,’ ‘takot’ and ‘malambot,’” shared 22-year-old Eli. “It definitely made me build up walls to hide what I feel.” Similarly, 22-year-old Ron, who grew up in an all-boys school, used to find talking about emotions “an alien concept.”

This results in many men not learning how to appropriately understand their emotions. And because men expect other men to adhere to the same hegemonic masculinity, they also often have no network of male peers with whom they can connect on a deeper level. Willen, a 21-year-old from Cavite, noticed that he and his male friends rarely open up to each other. When they do, they tend to downplay their emotions or not speak about them seriously. 

Toxic masculinity thrives on a vicious cycle where men contribute to it and also suffer from it.

They may resort to unhealthy coping mechanisms like substance abuse, or develop codependent relationships with their female partners. Studies have also confirmed that men who conform to toxic masculine ideology are less likely to seek professional mental health help.

Because vulnerability is deemed a weakness, aggression is conversely seen as a strength. “In our culture, men are taught that only the simplest, (usually) positive feelings are accepted of real men, and that ignoring and bottling up negative emotions — aside from the father’s favorite: violent anger — is an integral part of what constitutes our ‘pagkalalaki,’” 19-year-old Milo explained. 

Notions of machismo also dictate that men be the family breadwinners and remain as self-reliant as possible. Filipino families traditionally view fathers as their primary source of strength — as such, while the readiness of Filipinos to positively respond to mental health issues is already scant, it is rarely extended to men. 

Young boys who don’t conform to hegemonic gender roles are reprimanded with homophobic or misogynistic slurs, often by older men. For Ron, it was his peers in elementary and high school who often used such slurs against him, which led to him thinking it was normal.

Young boys who don’t conform to hegemonic gender roles are reprimanded with homophobic slurs.

“We used it to demean someone whenever they showed cowardice. If someone didn’t perform a dare, we would say, ‘Bakla ka pala eh.’” His perception changed in college when he got called out for his derogatory use of the word. He heard it from his father as well, though he made sure to conceal his “feminine” interests to ensure he was never on the receiving end of the label.

Of course, aggressive, misogynistic men are not absolved of their perpetuation of toxic masculinity just because it also takes a toll on their mental health. As JJ Bola, author of Mask Off: Masculinity Redefined, wrote, “Toxic masculinity thrives on a vicious cycle where men contribute to it and also suffer from it.”

Ron believes that we can encourage Filipino men to seek mental support through normalizing emotional vulnerability, especially in boys-only environments like all-boys schools. Milo thinks having more empathetic male role models would be helpful in shifting the image of the ideal Filipino man away from the excessively masculine alpha and towards something more reflective of reality.

On a more immediate level, it’s also vital to address the structural barriers to seeking mental healthcare that Filipinos face regardless of gender. All men I spoke to expressed a desire to seek professional help but cited money as a major hurdle, as mental health workers and facilities remain inaccessible to large portions of the population.

The Philippine government only allocates 0.22% of total health expenditures to mental health, and specialized facilities are often situated only in urban areas. Health worker shortage also contributes to longer waiting time for patients and pushes remaining healthcare providers to overwork.

I often think about what Milo said about shifting our image of the ideal Filipino man to someone more empathetic and welcoming to vulnerability. I was reminded of my Zoom call with Willen, who shared that growing up, he always heard, “Kalalaki mong tao umiiyak ka, gusto mo pagtawanan ka nila?” His face stern, he added, “Ano namang nakakatawa sa pag-iyak? There’s nothing funny about it.”

The new ideal Filipino man, I realized, is not as far off as I thought; it is already being actualized by these small acts of defiance expressed by Willen and the other men I spoke to. For the first time since I started writing this, I felt hopeful.