Early in my career as a therapist, I worked with teenage boys who were mandated to attend counseling as part of their Juvenile Probation terms.
They were charged with everything from drug sales to assaults to terrorist threats. What I found underneath the acting out that got them on probation, was that the vast majority of these boys were depressed. The problem was the no one else saw the depression.
People saw angry, disrespectful, and sometimes scary kids.
Adult men are often the same. Their depression doesn’t always manifest as crying, lying in bed, or other stereotypical symptoms of depression. Very often their spouses don’t even recognize the depression. I frequently hear about partners who view low energy as laziness and decreased sex drive as dissatisfaction with the relationship.
Depression is on the rise
According to the World Health Organization, “Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide.”
Depression is serious, sometimes deadly, and very common.
My juvenile offender clients taught me a lot about depression among men. I remember one 14 year old boy, heavily gang involved, who complained relentlessly about coming to therapy. But he showed up every week. He took several buses to get himself to my office and I only recall his mother accompanying him once.
Slowly James began telling me about a friend who was shot on his block, how to falsify a drug test, and about his abusive father who was about be released from prison. This kid was on his own and hurting. He was good at acting tough on the outside. He didn’t want anyone to see his pain. He’d already learned that anger was accepted, even respected. From the outside it was clear that his anger was just a reflection of how alone, overwhelmed, and afraid he was feeling inside.
When I told James that I thought he was depressed, he laughed at me. He’d rather take any other label—truant, drug dealer, gang banger—anything but depressed. Depression feels like weakness to a lot of men. It’s a sign of failure; a source of shame. Depression is evidence of shortcomings and proof that you can’t do it on your own.
If this is what depression means, no wonder teenage boys and grown men aren’t willing to say their depressed and ask for help.
Feelings like a boy?
I recently had a group of eight year old boys at my house for my son’s birthday party. I overheard one of them teasing, “You cry like a girl.” I cringed. This is everything that’s wrong with what boys learn about feelings. We shame boys for feeling sad, confused, and afraid. And then we are frustrated when these same boys grow into men who won’t go to a doctor or therapist. Well, if I was told that crying is wrong, that therapy means you’re crazy, and help means you’re weak, I’d drink another beer and barricade myself in front of the TV, too.
Depression isn’t a choice any more then cancer is a choice. You can’t snap out of it. You can’t pretend you’re O.K. and hope it will magically get better. Recovery from depression takes hard work. But the good news is that depression is very treatable and recovery is possible.
One of the greatest compliments I’ve ever gotten as a therapist was from a man struggling with depression. It was his first time in counseling and after our session I could see the relief on his face as he said, “You’re easy to talk to.” He’d assumed counseling would be an embarrassing admission of failure. But it turned out to be a reassuring reminder of his strength and capability.
Asking for help takes strength. It says, “I deserve to feel better. I want to be a better husband and father.” It says, “I want to represent what it means to be a good man.” Struggles aren’t meant to be overcome alone. We are relational beings. This means we need each other.
Depression isn’t always obvious
My husband did a great job of hiding his depression. I’m a mental health professional and I had no idea how much he was suffering. He didn’t want to admit to himself or to anyone else that he needed help.
Depression in men can look different than in women. Some signs and symptoms of depression in men include:
- Anger and/or violence
- Substance abuse
- Social isolation or withdrawal
- Lack of sex drive or sexual acting out (such as porn obsession)
- Loss of interest in hobbies or fun activities
- Headaches, stomachaches, muscle tension
- Change in appetite and/or weight gain or loss
- Thoughts of death or suicide
- Other mental health problem such as anxiety, PTSD
- Family history of depression, suicide, or mental illness
- Stressors such as loss (job, divorce, death), financial , legal, or health problems
You don’t have to be like James. You can share your story. Tell someone you trust. You’ll be surprised how often the response is “me too.” The more we talk about depression and mental health treatment, the more we normalize it and make seeking help acceptable. We need to allow our sons, brothers, and husbands to cry, to express sadness, worry and overwhelm. We need to encourage, not shame, them for asking for help.
If you think you’re depressed, or struggling with a mental health problem, please consult a doctor or licensed mental health professional. You’ll be stronger for it!
Resources: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255
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