We live in a world where masculinity is both frail and toxic. Men are almost four times more likely than women to die by suicide and more than six million men have depression each year in the United States, according to the National Institute of Health. That’s less than the number of women who are depressed, but men are far less likely to seek help. And when guys do complain, their problems are often met with minimization or judgment. They’re told to “man up.”
That reality started to bother Stephen Cramer, a 42-year-old in Detroit, Michigan, when he was having marriage issues a few years ago. His now-ex-wife pointed out he was having trouble conveying his feelings, but he didn’t know how to ask for help or where to turn for advice.
So he created the Facebook support group Dudes Helping Dudes (DHD), for men to ask questions and connect emotionally with other men, without the typical shitposting associated with message boards.
Online groups, on Facebook and elsewhere, have long provided a safe space for people to unload their emotions. In particular, these groups have served women—like Girl’s Night In, an online sorority for women in Los Angeles, or Lolo’s Logic, a group for women to discuss sex freely. Before Cramer started DHD, he hosted a forum on LiveJournal called youarenotalone, where he “encouraged people to message me and I would post their questions, so that people could get advice on anything [anonymously],” he said. But Cramer didn’t see a space focused on men sharing their emotions and problems with each other, until he created DHD in 2011.
The group now has almost 750 members—all men, spanning from their early 20s to late 50s. Cramer said anyone who identifies as a man, including trans men, is welcome to join, but the group is closed so only members can see the posts.
“I encourage my friends to add as many of their male friends as they’d like,” Cramer told me. “I knew guys would open up to other guys if they knew it was a closed group.”
Cramer said expressing himself has always been a challenge. He was depressed as a teenager, but didn’t seek help until 25 years later. Even now, he sometimes struggles to articulate his feelings. There’s actually a term for that—normative male alexithymia, or the phenomenon of men choking back their feelings, like “emotional mummies.”
“My dad is my male role model and he never sought counseling [for his mental health],” Cramer told me. “It was a daunting task because, for me, growing up, I never saw men in my life seek help.”
That’s hardly unusual, according to Carolyn Peterson, undergraduate director in the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department at the University of Cincinnati, who says there is a pervasive stigma when it comes to men looking for emotional support.
“Boys and men in our society are terrorized into behaving and performing a specific type of masculinity that forbids sadness, vulnerability, intimacy, or anything else that is considered ‘vulnerable,’ and therefore feminine,” she told me. “They are explicitly punished if they do not conform to this standard.”
When I told her about DHD, she said she could see how a group like this would be beneficial. “For one, it is private, and this gives men a space to be authentic human beings who can reach out and connect with other men honestly and openly. They can drop the front for a minute.”
The group discussion ranges from relationship and personal struggles to mental health issues and beyond. One member of the group, 37-year-old Daniel Betzner, was a cook for half his life, but he’s currently on disability due to a chronic pain disorder. He confided in the group about how he was feeling and asked for advice on what to do.
“I made a post stating that I have these symptoms interfering with my work and every facet of my life,” he told me. “The response was unusually positive. A lot of message boards I’ve posted on, I’ve had people make fun of me. It’s good to be part of a community like that where people are generally cool to each other. That’s sort of a rare thing on the internet.”
David Finkel, 57, also turned to the group seeking advice for a fairly serious problem (which he felt comfortable disclosing there, but not here). And in turn, he’s given advice to other men in the group. He recalls one post, in which a guy revealed that he was being cheated on and manipulated by his partner. His advice, like many of the other members’ advice, was to end the relationship.
It doesn’t matter what men decide to post—it could be a confession of relationship problems, or asking for recommendations on razors—as long as they’re opening up. The only thing off limits is making fun of or belittling someone else’s problem.
“Feelings aren’t right or wrong. They just are,” Cramer explained. “You might feel that somebody is misguided or shortsighted in something, but if they’re feeling pain, they’re feeling pain. You can’t argue against that. If you argue their pain is irrational, that just puts a wall between you and him.”
There have been times when a few of the responses, even to some of Cramer’s posts, were akin to telling someone to “be a man”—to get up and do something and just get over it.
Cramer’s response has always been, “No, that’s what this group is for. This group is to smash that stereotype.” Cramer monitors the group for negative posts and deletes them. Sometimes the posts and comments go further than just minimizing peoples’ problems.
“There were some anti-gay things posted on there before,” he said. “That’s not cool. This is all about bringing people together and breaking down walls. If you’re going to make women or gay-bashing jokes, you’re not welcome here. Any jokes that minimize the struggle of anyone else are not welcome.”
There were some concerns about the group excluding women, voiced by women. As a tongue-in-cheek response, Cramer started a group called, “People Helping People,” which included women but didn’t really take off. While Cramer understands the concern, he still thinks there is a special camaraderie in these male-only groups.
“Vulnerability in men is a tricky thing,” he told me. “You saw it on the TV show Cheers, where they bonded in a certain way when it was just the guys. Guys don’t always know how to talk to women and guys should open up to each other more. That’s the whole reason for this.”
Dudes interested in Dudes Helping Dudes can join here.
Originally written for VICE: CLICK HERE FOR THE STORY.