Sangu Delle: How Does Toxic Masculinity Contribute To The Stigma Of Mental Illness?

Oct 11, 2019
Originally published on October 11, 2019 8:18 am

Part 5 of the TED Radio Hour episode Erasing The Stigma.

About Sangu Delle's TED Talk

As a child, Sangu Delle learned "real men" don't struggle with emotions. But when he later experienced anxiety and depression, he realized seeking help was actually a sign of strength—not weakness.

About Sangu Delle

Sangu Delle is an author, entrepreneur, and investor.

He is the managing director of Africa Health Holdings, an innovative healthcare company based in Ghana. He also serves as Chairman of Golden Palm Investments Corporation (GPI), an investment holding company focused on building world class technology companies in Africa.

Delle is a clean water activist and co-founder of Cleanacwa, a nonprofit working in underdeveloped communities in Ghana to make sure that water and sanitation, basic human rights, are provided.

Delle graduated from Harvard College with degrees in Economics and African Studies. He's a recipient of the Soros Fellowship and has also completed two law degrees at Harvard.

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On the show today, ideas about erasing the stigma of mental illness. So Sangu Delle is an entrepreneur who grew up in Ghana, and he always thought of mental illness as something other people had to deal with, not something that would actually affect him.

SANGU DELLE: You know, when I was growing up, my peers and I - we used to actually perceive a lot of these things - depression, anxiety - those were, quote-unquote, you know, "foreign diseases," "white diseases," right? It was the idea as - you know, as an African, you don't get those diseases.

RAZ: And as a kid, Sangu was taught what a lot of us might have heard growing up - that real men don't show weakness.

DELLE: It traps you - right? - because it gives you this idea of, what does it mean to be a man? And in this conception, what it means to be a man is to be strong, and to be strong means you can't be vulnerable. You can't engage with your emotions. And it's really harmful.

RAZ: I guess that that was how you felt and how many - frankly, many people feel around the world about mental health. And then you yourself kind of experienced it. You experienced anxiety. What happened?

DELLE: Yes. So for the first time, I had a really - a big deal I was working on that just completely collapsed, that basically almost imperiled the existence of my company. And I had never faced such a challenge before. And so I spiraled down a dark hole. I was getting anxiety. I was getting - I faced depression. It wasn't just anxiety; I faced depression and anxiety. But what made it even more difficult was the fact that I didn't and I could not admit to myself that I was going through these challenges because I had this construction - OK? - this set idea for what it meant to be a man. And so it did not give me the room to be able to be vulnerable. It did not give me the capacity to allow myself to be weak. And so that made the suffering even worse because I suffered in silence. I suffered alone. I couldn't share it with anyone. I didn't even have the tools to know about how to talk about it. It was a very, very painful and dark time.

RAZ: Sangu Delle picks up the story from the TED stage.


DELLE: On some days, I could do no work. On other days, I just wanted to lay in my bed and cry. My doctor asked if I'd like to speak with a mental health professional about my stress and anxiety. Mental health - I clammed up and violently shook my head in protest. I have a loving, supportive family and incredibly loyal friends, yet I could not entertain the idea of speaking to anyone about my feeling of pain. People have real problems, Sangu. Get over yourself.

RAZ: Wow. You felt like this is self-indulgent or people have real problems, and this is just my petty kind of, you know, selfish, self-absorbed feelings. Like, is that - are those the things that you kind of felt?

DELLE: Absolutely. And I'll tell you something that's interesting. Even in my talk in which I come out and I tell people, look; this is my struggle. Go seek help...

RAZ: Yeah.

DELLE: ...I'll confess and I'll tell you - it still took me another year before I went to see a therapist, so deep was the stigma.

RAZ: So what happened? Like, what happened when you finally did seek out help?

DELLE: Yes. So my first therapy session, my therapist asked me, so how do you feel? And I was like, what do you mean, how do I feel? I'm OK (laughter), right? I actually - but I did not know how to answer that question. And it took me a while to be able to answer that question because I didn't even have the tools. I didn't even know what it meant when you said, how do you feel? I'm just like, yes, I'm fine.

RAZ: Yeah. You know, it's interesting because watching your talk you, of course, are talking about how mental health issues are internalized and discussed and described in Africa. But when I heard your talk, I thought, you know, it's really widespread. It's a - it still does get stigmatized broadly around the world.

DELLE: Absolutely. And you're right. While I spoke about it from the African perspective, which is what I feel comfortable speaking on...

RAZ: Sure.

DELLE: ...I was pleasantly surprised - post my talk, too - I heard from people from all over the world. I had someone send me an email from Sudan where they said, for the first time in my life, my - I just watched your talk with my family, and we're having a conversation about mental health at the dinner table. I received thousands of such messages. People from different communities that say, look; we identify with this, where they also struggle with this toxic masculinity. But we just haven't created the right environment that makes it OK to talk about it.

RAZ: Right. Because what men learn about masculinity when they're young ends up affecting everything else - right? - their empathy, their ability to internalize different emotions.

DELLE: Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, the way I always like to think about it is, it truly deprives you of your humanity because if you are not allowed to be vulnerable, if you're not allowed to fully process and express your emotions, you're not being allowed to be fully human. And I would always defend it and say, well, you know, I'm an analytical person. I'm data-driven. That's how I look at the world. But really, it's because I was just scared of being vulnerable. I was scared of emotions.

And so it took a lot of work and a lot of education to actually understand that, OK - you know what? - emotions are your body telling you something. And the more you can get comfortable with it and understand yourself and know how you can leverage emotions, you're going to have a better life.

RAZ: That's Sangu Delle. He runs a health care business based in Ghana called Africa Health Holdings. You can find his full talk at


RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to our show Erasing The Stigma this week. If you want to find out more about who was on it, go to And to see hundreds more TED Talks, check out or the TED app.

Our production staff at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Neva Grant, Casey Herman, Rachel Faulkner, Diba Mohtasham, James Delahoussaye, J.C. Howard, Maria Paz Gutierrez and Katie Monteleone, with help from Daniel Shukin and Emmanuel Johnson. Our intern is Kiara Brown. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan and Michelle Quint. I'm Guy Raz. And you've been listening to ideas worth spreading right here on the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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