Matt Zerker, the founder and chief executive officer of tethr, spoke at a July 8 webinar organized by JNF Future. (screenshot)
Matt Zerker, the founder and chief executive officer of tethr, an online community for men aimed at promoting honest and open conversations about mental health issues, spoke at a July 8 webinar organized by JNF Future, a branch of the Jewish National Fund aimed at adults aged 25-45.
Called The (Not So) Hidden Men’s Mental Health Crisis, Zerker’s talk touched upon some troubling numbers and outdated beliefs still too prevalent within the male population. Citing a study, he said 40% of men feel they have nobody to turn to when they have a problem associated with mental health. He added that the vast majority of suicides are committed by men, and many men continue to believe it is not masculine to discuss personal problems with others or to go to therapy.
To illustrate his point, Zerker relayed an anecdote related to men who do seek help: “When a man goes to therapy, he tells the therapist, ‘Doc, I am not like other guys.’ ‘Why?’ asks the doctor. ‘Because I’m here,’ answers the man.”
A chartered financial analyst, Zerker worked for seven years as a portfolio manager at a hedge fund in Toronto. Despite his outward success, he felt unfulfilled in his life, with little motivation to work, and he struggled for years with his personal and professional relationships. He resorted to substance use and found himself deeply depressed.
In late 2018, a friend told him of a men’s group. “It was amazing because it did not deal with solving problems but with finding space for one another and listening to what I was going through,” he recounted.
In April 2019, he went on a men’s retreat. “The morning after the first night of the retreat, I woke up to a feeling of peace. The panic attacks and the tightness in my head and body I had experienced for months prior were gone,” he recalled.
He returned to work after the retreat and felt he did not belong in the office any longer, so he quit his job, with no fallback plan. Soon thereafter, the idea to build a platform where men could connect with one another and speak openly about the issues they were facing as men hit him “like a tidal wave.” Thus, tethr came into being.
“I felt there was a need to build a space where men feel comfortable talking about these issues,” he explained.
Since its inception, tethr has established partnerships with Men’s Health Research at the University of British Columbia; HeadsUpGuys, a resource for men battling depression; and Movember, a charity devoted to men’s health.
Quoting a study by Dr. Michael Kimmel, which stated that 93% of men do not identify with the way masculinity is portrayed in the media, Zerker contended that men are holding themselves to an impossible standard.
“The normative framework for masculinity in our culture is self-reliance, stoicism and the idea of being the unwavering provider. It is an outdated, heavily indoctrinated belief in us as to how we should act as men and is reinforced in movies and commercials,” he said. “As men, we are trained to out-alpha, out-male each other. There is the fear that, if we say something to another male, we will be seen as a ‘lesser man.’ Everything becomes about how we look as opposed to how we feel. We externalize things.”
This can lead, Zerker maintained, to a lack of connection with friends, family and, mostly, with oneself. Men become unable to be truly authentic, he said. For a lot of men, he argued, this can come out in anger and frustration. “You show me an angry man and I’ll show you a sad, wounded boy inside,” he said.
Zerker urged men to be softer, more caring and more reasonable with themselves, and to not set impossible standards. He also encouraged men to reach out to other men and find out how they are doing during the pandemic, i.e., making a plan with another man whom one can trust to have a conversation that is more personal than talk of politics or sports.
“Most men feel like they cannot be the ones who make the first step, but they are thankful when someone does,” Zerker asserted.
For more information, visit tethr.men or download the tethr app on an iPhone or Android device.
Sam Margolis has written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.