Panelists Martin Pierre, Kalen Jackson, Kevin Simon, and Bryce Spencer-Jones.

Panelists (from left) Martin Pierre, Kalen Jackson, Kevin Simon, and Bryce Spencer-Jones.

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer


Strong, silent, and suffering inside

5 min read

What if society gave men permission to be vulnerable? Panelists discuss masculinity and mental health.

“There’s a popular quote that says men receive their first flowers at their funerals,” said Bryce Spencer-Jones, leading off a Chan School talk on the obstacles men face when it comes to addressing their mental health.

Spencer-Jones, host of the podcast “Unstuck Yourself,” shared some statistics. One in 10 men will experience anxiety and depression, yet less than half of them will receive treatment for it.

Joining him at the event last Thursday to discuss why and how society might better support men’s emotional needs was Kevin Simon, chief behavioral health officer for the city of Boston; Kalen Jackson, vice chair and owner of the Indianapolis Colts and founder of the “Kicking the Stigma” campaign; and Martin Pierre, past president of the Massachusetts Psychological Association.

“Many men just want to be seen and heard,” Spencer-Jones said. “They have so many emotions they’re holding onto … [but] they might not have the resources to know where to start their healing.”

Simon said that many men don’t realize that therapy could provide the necessary skills and tools for coping with their emotions. As Spencer-Jones put it, a lot of men just “don’t know what they don’t know.”

“I have a 2-year-old boy, and oftentimes when boys show emotion early on, they’re trained societally to try to taper it down and not really fully acknowledge what the feelings are,” said Simon, who is also a psychiatrist and an instructor at Harvard Medical School. “Men tend not to seek services because they’re just not even fully aware of the emotions they’re having.”

Jackson has seen firsthand through her work for the Colts organization how players can struggle to overcome the stigma around even talking about mental health issues. It’s one of the reasons she started the “Kicking the Stigma” campaign, which raises awareness about mental health disorders. It features videos from players, such as All-Pro linebacker Darius Shaquille Leonard, opening up about their own mental health journeys.

Jackson said that many of their fans may not seek information about behavioral health on their own, but if they see Colts players sharing their own stories, they’re more likely to “look up” and listen.

“There’s not a bigger representation of masculinity in America than football. To be able to break that down with [our players] sharing how they’re feeling and sharing their emotions … realizing the impact we can have has been inspirational for us.”

Pierre, previous president of the Massachusetts Psychological Association, said it’s also important to create safe spaces for men to share their experiences with one another. Men are more likely to open up about their struggles when they are comfortable and in a relationship with other men.

“Connection allows men to recognize their own humanity,” said Pierre, staff psychologist at Brandeis University Counseling Center and co-founder of Ashmont Counseling practice in Dorchester. “Safe spaces allow men to bear witness to each other’s pain as a way of debriefing and affirming and allowing them to be vulnerable with each other … when you reveal, you heal.”

The event, “Ending the Stigma: Empowering Men to Prioritize Mental Health,” was part of the Creators Summit on Mental Health, a Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health initiative designed to bring together influential content creators and researchers studying mental health. The goal is to inform creators on best practices and give them access to scientists and resources to better serve their audiences. The summit’s virtual kickoff in April focused primarily on women’s healthcare from girlhood through motherhood.

During the men’s mental health panel, attendees watched a clip from the “Today” show in which NBC reporter Carson Daly spoke with rapper Logic. Logic shared how after a major panic attack, he struggled with being labeled as someone with anxiety. But through therapy, he was able to better cope with his emotions.

“I see a therapist once a week. She’s the bomb,” Logic told Daly in the video, leading to laughs from the audience.

This type of visibility from influential people is changing the conversation around mental health, a point not lost on the creators who attended the panel. The 25 influencers participating in the Chan initiative have a combined reach of 20 million people. Following the event, attendees were invited to stay for a conversation with Daly, Phillip Schermer of the nonprofit Project Healthy Minds, and James Holt of the nonprofit Archewell Foundation about how creators and media can use their platforms to make change in mental health.

Panelists said that the more people share their stories, the more that it will create a new culture providing men with the resources they need to face their emotional battles with courage.

“I think it’s important to redefine our definition of masculinity,” Pierre said. “[V]ulnerability [should be seen] as a true sense of manhood — and a sense of strength.”