Male depression can be silent and unnoticed, or lead to the suicidal rage of Josh Powell. Lauren Hale explores this important issue.
He’s your brother, your father, your cousin, your son, your friend. He is the man in line in front of you at the store or next to you in the elevator. He is made of flesh and bone. His heart receives blood and pumps it through his body, just like yours. He breathes the same air you do. He walks, talks, laughs, loves, hurts, and cries just like you.
When was the last time you talked to him? I do not mean the rote “How are you?” we drop in passing, jetting off before an answer is proffered. I mean stopping to ask, “How are you feeling?” and sticking around for the answer. “Ask a man how he’s feeling? Surely you must be joking. Men don’t discuss such things,” you’re thinking. I assure you, I am not kidding.
Society has created a mythological male made of marble –cold, unfeeling, heartless. Not allowed to ask for directions, cry, or admit emotion of any kind. Men are fixers. Pillars. Cracking is not allowed. Propping yourself up is forbidden. Many men feel they must hide their flaws (real or perceived) from others for fear of being viewed as weak. Some self-medicate with alcohol, drugs, or working long hours. Others channel their failures into a deep well of rage, one which eventually explodes as forcefully as a long-dormant volcano. Women also hide flaws behind smiles, over-burdening themselves with too many roles, and dedication to displaying perfection. None of us is perfect.
Josh Powell had a long history of stress and perceived shortcomings. We may never know exactly when his traumatic history started, but we now know when it ended. Last Sunday, he set his rental home ablaze with himself and his two young sons –7-year-old Charlie and 5-year-old Braden– inside, after locking their caseworker outside. Autopsy results revealed an even more horrific ending for these two young boys. Their father had brutally attacked them prior to their deaths from carbon monoxide inhalation.
The case surrounding Josh Powell and the death of his sons is intricate. Josh’s father is in prison for voyeurism and one count of possessing a pornographic image of children. His wife disappeared in 2009, a case in which Josh was a person of interest. The Wednesday prior to the death of Josh and his two young sons, the court denied his petition to regain custody of Charlie and Braden, lost when his father was arrested as Josh lived in the home with him. Authorities have since named Josh’s father, Steven, as a new person of interest in the disappearance of Susan Cox-Powell, Josh’s wife. Steven has implied a sexual relationship existed between himself and Susan, a charge vehemently denied by Susan’s parents, Chuck and Judy Cox.
These cases expose the dark and messy side of our human nature. We are quick to judge, convict, and dismiss the party responsible as a monstrous abomination. While these terms may certainly apply, we must also be willing to open our hearts to learn the lessons offered in the wake of these events. It is necessary to humanize the responsible party instead of crucifying him. How important is it? According to Dr. Will Courtenay, PhD,, The Men’s Doctor and author of Dying to be Men, “It’s absolutely critical. It’s very easy to vilify someone who commits such a heinous act. But once we do that, we not only separate ourselves from his humanness, we simultaneously dismiss the ways in which we all contribute –either actively or passively– to creating a society in which these kinds of atrocities can occur.”
But how do we change society to prevent such atrocities?
“There’s a myth in our society, that men simply don’t get depressed. That myth is so powerful that even trained mental health clinicians are less likely to correctly diagnose depression in men than in women – and that increases men’s risk. This cultural myth also communicates the message to men that they shouldn’t get depressed. So, when they are depressed, men are more likely than women to try to hide it or talk themselves out of it. One of the first things things we need to do, as a society, is begin to dispel this myth,” stated Courtenay.
“There’s no better – nor more tragic – proof of men’s depression than suicide. Depression is the most common condition linked with suicide, and every day, more than 70 U.S. men take their own lives, up to 12 times the number women who do,” says Courtenay, mentioning depression in light of Josh’s suicide. We do not know if Josh was clinically depressed but it is one of the many conditions which leads to suicide.
According to a report found at the American Association of Suicidology website entitled, “Help-seeking among Men: Implications for Suicide Prevention,” men are more likely to reach out to a female rather than a male when seeking help for depression or suicidal feelings. They are also less likely to see a mental health professional and will wait until a valid excuse for a doctor’s visit, such as a routine physical or physical illness, prior to seeking help from a primary care physician. Even then, many men do not offer up immediate confessions of emotional distress. Instead, they rely upon the physician to investigate, which often does not happen thanks to the cultural myth discussed by Dr. Courtenay above.
This then invites the question, how do we encourage men to open up about such feelings?
The American Association of Suicidology suggests we do so by meeting them “where they are at” instead of attempting to bring their focus in a new direction. Emphasize cognitive solutions instead of emotional recovery. Offer fathering classes which incorporate mental health issue awareness and provides the additional boost of “doing this for my family.” Encourage popular role models for men such as athletes, male actors, and others to speak up when they are struggling with mental illness. In the past few years, several men have opened up about mental illness struggles. A list at Bliss Tree of male celebrities/public figures with mental illness struggles includes: Dave Matthews, Barret Robbins, Earl Campbell, Willard Scott, Francis Ford Coppola, Anthony Hopkins, Sting, and Trent Reznor.
Not all depressed men are a danger to themselves or others. Anger is certainly a symptom of depression but not one which is transformed into violence by every struggling man. We can diffuse the situation by changing the cycle of stigma around mental health. Educating fathers to seek help for depression breaks the cycle, allowing them to pass on to their sons that admitting emotional vulnerability is a strength instead of a weakness.
The cycle of stigma surrounding mental health is sticky and deep but holds an extra layer for men as they must overcome the stigma of the expected “everything is okay” image in order to reach out for help. Check in with the men in your life often. Ask them how things are going. Wait for the answer and listen without judgment. Know the signs of male depression and the warning signs of suicide. Share the resources available in your community and online.
Mahatma Ghandi once said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” If we are not a catalyzing change encouraging men to seek help for mental health issues, we will continue to lose innocent lives to stigma, silence, and the resulting trauma.
Be the change.
If you or a loved one are suicidal, please call 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) or go to the nearest ER to seek help. You can also reach out to @unsuicide on Twitter or find additional resources at their website, NationalLifelineSuicidePrevention. The AmericanSocietyforSuicidePrevention is also an excellent resource. If you’ve lost a loved one to suicide, SurvivorsofSuicide offers support groups and a network of resources. You are not alone.
photo: Hussain Khorsheed / flickr