In Zimbabwe, Toxic Masculinity is Driving Male Suicide Rates | Opinion

From how we greet each other, to the way we think, speak and behave, culture dictates so much of Zimbabwean life.

The expectations and pressure that come from being in such a culturally dominant society can be devastating–especially for men.

It was reported that from 2015 to 2019, 2,058 men died by suicide as compared to 505 females during the same period. These numbers are devastating and point to a much deeper issue within Zimbabwe.

According to culture, men are expected to be breadwinners, providers and strong. There is no room for anything less. This expectation takes a toll on many men in the country.

Takura Pfumojena, 40, based in capital city Harare had been married for three years and had a child. Financially he was struggling. When his family had to move to a smaller house because he could no longer afford rent, he was crushed.

"I felt an overwhelming sadness. I did not even know where to start to tackle the problem," he said.

As Pfumojena sunk deeper into depression, he began spending endless days playing video games on his Xbox from the early morning until his wife came home from work.

"I was always taught the man should provide; the man should have the better paying job," he said.

The idea of what a man should be stuck with him and those expectations he failed to reach made him feel less of a man. According to culture, he failed as a father because of his inability to provide his child with clothes that properly fit.

Being raised in an environment that lauds and uplifts one kind of masculinity while disregarding any other is especially toxic. In such an environment, there is no room for men to fail or be less than the standard they have been taught since birth.

This is suffocating for most men. When men's worth is based off their financial virality, especially in a country like Zimbabwe, where the economy has been unstable for the last two decades, the foundation they are told happiness is built upon is weak, unpredictable and unreliable. This is a slippery, dangerous slope to depression.

Eventually Pfumojena found a job and things got better after pushing through his depression in silence. "I just had to keep fighting the struggle," he said.

His story is one with a happy ending, but many are not as lucky to make it through depression.

A Zimbabwean holds a national flag. ALEXANDER JOE/AFP via Getty Images

Men should not have to feel that they need to fight mental health alone and simply push through it. In a country that was ranked as 19th for suicide rates in 2017, mental health needs to be a priority, not an afterthought. Yet as a society we are not doing enough.

"The difference between sexes is very significant," a Ministry of Health and Child Care spokesperson said. The ministry put forth initiatives such as "training courses about suicide and depression, and organizing cultural or spiritual events, fairs or exhibitions," in an attempt to curb the rate of suicide among men.

We let culture dictate so much of what we do, but our approach to mental health needs to be more intentional, or we may continue to lose more lives to mental illness.

"Cultural expectations put particular pressure on men to suppress how they feel. Men in turn spend most of their time thinking and overthinking making cognitive errors and distortions," said Herbert Zirima, a psychologist and psychology lecturer at Great Zimbabwe University.

If men cannot help themselves, how can they be expected to help each other?

A Zimbabwean man who asked to remain anonymous said, "Most deal with mental health through finding distractions that will reduce depression. Some take herbal marijuana to ease mental challenges."

As a country, Zimbabwe needs to adopt a more liberal image of what a man can be. We need a more open dialogue among the population. The need for education about mental health is imperative, now more than ever.

"It is important to destroy myths that are barriers for men to seek treatment," said Lazarus Kajawu, a clinical psychologist based in Zimbabwe.

Young boys need to be told it is okay to be gentle, to cry and to feel their emotions.

"We need a resocialization for people to change the way they view men and how they are expected to behave," Zirima said.

It is difficult to enact change on ideologies that have been entrenched in a culture for generations. Change is essential. We cannot continue to let down the men of Zimbabwe.

Mental health is a beast everyone must fight together.

Danai Nesta Kupemba is a journalist passionate about the world and fascinated by the human condition.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.