Michael, a 25-year-old in Virginia, recalls the exact moment his anxiety and depression reached a breaking point. He was about to graduate college, and the fear of finding employment and leaving behind the comfort of his social bubble left him feeling increasingly isolated — to the point where he wouldn’t leave his room for days at a time. “It was a full mental breakdown, and looking back, I wish I wouldn’t have been so afraid to bring Ducky,” he tells me. “I would have been better off with him there, especially when I was feeling incredibly lonely and I needed something to remind me of home.”
Ducky is Michael’s stuffed animal — a little yellow duck that’s been at his side since Michael was only a few weeks old. “Throughout my teenage years, I found him comforting when dealing with stress, insomnia and social anxiety,” he says. When he went to college, however, Michael felt Ducky’s presence would render him childish and unmasculine. He felt similarly about therapy. “I was offered therapy, but I declined as I felt there would be a negative image painted by ‘being in therapy,’” he explains. “I also felt I wasn’t at the point of needing one-on-one therapy; in truth, though, I think I was just scared of confronting my issues properly.”
But all of that changed when a major panic attack left him covered in sweat and sprinting out of a lecture hall. Ever since, Michael has dedicated himself to finding the right meds, exercising and finally giving himself over to therapy. Of course, this time, he’s also made sure that Ducky is with him every step of the way, too.
“I guess I’ve treated Ducky as a ‘grounding tool’ for when I’m emotional,” he says. “In that way, it’s like a pet, but without the responsibility of caring for it and the fear of eventually losing it.”
At the same time, however, Michael still struggles to confront his fear of being judged — not only for struggling with his mental health, but for using for his childhood stuffie to bolster it. “Only one of my friends knows about the therapy; a handful more found out about the anti-depressants,” he says. “But I’m aware — whether it’s real or not — of a social stigma associated with owning stuffed animals when you’re in your teens or older. That’s why I haven’t really talked about my stuffed animal — because of the fear of judgment. No one I know in real life is aware of Ducky.”
For his part, redditor StubbornElephant85, a 35-year-old veteran in Kentucky, wants to permanently alter this stigma. “I’m in the process of starting a company specifically geared toward creating stuffed animals for men — struggling with mental health or not — called Badass Animals,” he writes via Reddit DM. “My goal is to break the stigma with mental health and men, because struggling with mental health isn’t an easy journey for anyone, especially these days, so I will do anything I can do to help.”
To further demonstrate his commitment, he recently posted an image of his stuffed elephant, Peanut, to the subreddit r/MentalHealth. “I’m a grown-ass man that has been to Iraq twice, been beaten down in life more than I can count and I have a stuffed animal,” he writes in his post. “When I’m alone and need someone to talk to, he’s there to listen. When the PTSD nightmares kick up, he’s there for you to protect him from the bad. When you get those bad thoughts of hurting yourself, just look into his eyes and try to convince him [why] you think you need to hurt yourself. Be a grown-ass man, get a stuffie!”
“There is such a fear that when opening up and showing your vulnerable side, people will mock you or tell you to, ugh, ‘man up,’ as if emotions aren’t allowed,” says Charlie, a 20-year-old in the U.K. who relies on his stuffie, Kitty, when the going gets tough. “I’ve always had some struggles with mental health after a rough upbringing, but when I left for university, it was definitely at the peak. It was then I really discovered how much the companionship of a plush animal can help when struggling mentally. While Kitty could never replace actual human or pet contact, having anything I can invest emotional value into and is soft and huggable has been incredibly helpful with staving off loneliness and grounding me during anxiety attacks and depressive episodes.”
Like Michael, however, Charlie was cautious about letting anyone know he sometimes needed the help of a stuffie to stave off his troubles. “I was quite careful and selective about who I told about my stuffed animal since I wasn’t sure if they’d call me childish or a sissy or something like that,” he tells me. “But funny enough, when I told my friends, almost all of them had stuffed animals, too. It’s funny how shared experience can so easily break the taboo.”
Michael, meanwhile, knows he’ll get there soon. “I’ve rolled my eyes at people’s go-to advice to ‘talk about your problems with the people close to you, and not to be shy of doing so,’ because it’s easier said than done,” he says. “Dealing with mental health is a journey, and I still have progress to make. One day, though, I hope to find the courage to talk openly about more of my issues and my methods of coping — and when I do, no matter how hard or scary it is, I know I’ll be proud of myself for having gotten there.”
He also knows that he will have gotten there with Ducky right there with him.