On Making a Big Deal Out of Trying Not to Make a Big Deal

On Making a Big Deal Out of Trying Not to Make a Big Deal


Imagine the following conversation between Frank and Joe, a couple of hypothetical male college students:

Frank: Hey bruh, how’s it going?

Joe: Hey! I’m good. What’ve you been up to?

Frank: Just got back from the gym.

Joe: Uh, right. That’s uh—everything okay?

Frank: Yeah, you know…I’m just trying to work out. Makes me feel better.

Joe: Right, gotcha. Well, hope it helps, man. Must be tough.

Frank: What? No, I just like to get a lift in. Sometimes a run, too.

Joe: Sure, sure. I’m sure things will get better.

Something seems off about Joe’s answers, right? Frank’s just explaining what he likes to do to that helps him feel healthy. The gym’s an enjoyable part of Frank’s day—or maybe not the gym itself, but the effect it has on his life. Joe, on the other hand, is being ridiculous.

Now let me ask this: if you imagine that instead of the gym, Frank reports that he’s just gotten back from a therapy session, and that sometimes he likes to talk to somebody about what’s going on in his life, does it still seem like an absurd conversation? Not nearly as much, I’d bet. Though in that case, maybe the fact that Frank is being honest about where he was seems odd.

Why is this, exactly? Why is it so normal to talk about going for a run, but not normal to talk about what you’re running from?  I have a shrink friend who likes to say, “go to the gym and work out, and then go to therapy and work your shit out.” The people I’d most like to ask this question to are other men, since we are statistically more averse to attending therapy than women. According to an article in Psychology Today, only about a third of patients enrolled in therapy are men. I’m sure we can offer all kinds of reasons for this, most of which boil down to toddler-logic: We can do it ourselves! We don’t need to talk to anybody, or share our feelings, or “get help.” (Meanwhile, as of a 2007 study, more than 70% of men who expressed an interest in treatment were willing to use painkillers.)

Again, notice how absurd this would sound if it were your reason for not going to the gym. Nobody goes to the gym because they want to “get help.” We go to the gym to work.

My point here is that we seem to believe that therapy is something only the very troubled do. To “admit” you need therapy is to admit your life has gone off the rails and is in desperate need of repair. (At this point, my shrink friend might point out that if we follow this metaphor, we might notice that it’s not your life that’s off but the rails themselves. But that’s another issue.) A good reason to go to therapy is that you struggle with something. Another good reason is that you notice a pattern in your life you don’t like. Another is that you wish you had a better idea of what you want to do with your life.

One of the challenges that we face when it comes to mental health is that it’s really difficult to describe what kinds of feelings are warning signs. They’re feelings, so they’re subjective. For example, the National Institute of Mental Health says that depression is “a common but serious mental illness typically marked by sad or anxious feelings,” and that the signs of depression might include feeling

  • Sad
  • Anxious
  • Empty
  • Hopeless
  • Guilty
  • Worthless
  • Irritable
  • Restless

Of course, everybody probably feels some or all of these from time to time. How do you know if your version of guilt or sadness is depression-level guilt or sadness? It’s not like a broken leg: you can’t see hopelessness.

But there’s a different way to think about it. You don’t need to decide for yourself whether or not you have “a serious mental illness.” You only need to decide if you like the way you feel. If the answer is no, or sometimes no, or even just only in very specific circumstances no, you might consider going to talk to somebody. And going to talk to somebody doesn’t mean you’re “asking for help.” Believe me: therapy is work, and you’re going to be doing most of it.

Fortunately, UNH has a number of mental health resources for students and community members. Try making an appointment at Health Services to talk with a Wellness Educator/Counselor or the Counseling Center. You might also learn a little about the wellness services available at Health Services, whose mission is to “promote, maintain, and improve the health and well-being of the campus community.” (N.B.: THEY HAVE DOGS. YES REALLY.) If you don’t like the way you feel about food—a common concern even for male college students, which I’ve written about before—you might make an appointment to speak with an Eating Concerns Mentor or their Nutrition Educator/Counselor.