Q:I’m worried about my friend. I’m worried because I think my friend is depressed. I fear he uses alcohol to mask his sadness. We went to different colleges and he was heavy into the frat scene. I see him every couple months now that we’ve graduated. He can’t find a job in his field and he doesn’t talk about his feelings. I know he’s frustrated, saddled with student loans and still living at home in a toxic environment. Here’s my reason for writing. Can you please address the reality of hidden depression in men? I don’t think my friend is alone in using drugs or alcohol to self-medicate. Thanks for still being there years after you taught me in high school.
25 and still learning
Mary Jo’s response: Being remembered by a former student is a great gift. Thank you.
Your concerns show empathy for your friend’s experience. Caring for our friends is important. You’re correct, he may self-medicate to camouflage depression. You’ve asked a wise and poignant question. Why do so many men hide depression?
Our culture teaches masculinity equals strength. Negative messages about manhood and showing emotions are shouted in the media and modeled during childhood. I’m preparing to teach my educational psychology class this week; one of the books we look at is “Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Lives of Boys,” by Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson. Many boys are taught and encouraged to hide their feelings. Anger is one of the few emotions we model for boys. “Boys don’t cry” is an unhealthy way to frame life’s normal ups and downs. Emotions are universal and gender does not regulate how we feel. Gender is cultural; those who identify as men may be caught up in the messages they receive about masculinity.
Here are some myths:
1. Depression is a sign of weakness. Stigma associated with seeking help for mental health issues is common. Studies show this stigma is more intense for men. Masculinity in our culture preaches reining in feelings. Showing emotion is not a sign of weakness, but of health.
2. Only women get depressed. Anyone can be depressed. Most people take antibiotics for infection without second-guessing the treatment, yet we often consider mental health a problem we can ignore or fix on our own. This is especially true for men.
3. Real men don’t need help. Asking for help may also be linked with weakness in our culture. Men are supposed to be in control; seeking help may signify a loss of power. Depression is real and real people need support when depressed. Seeking therapy shows strength.
4. Therapy doesn’t “work.” Many people are confused by therapy. Young people who feel depressed often tell me “talking with someone I don’t know won’t help.” There’s more to therapy than just talking. Therapists are skilled professionals who can offer varied approaches to ease the pain of depression. Once again, if people experience physical health problems like high blood pressure or cancer, few admonish them to avoid treatment because it doesn’t work. Mental health is no different.
5. Men should be able to take care of things on their own. I’ve known young men who fear becoming a burden to others. No one needs to face depression alone.
The truth is men are depressed; in the U.S., four times as many men die from suicide as women. Signs of depression in men may be different. Depressed men are more likely to:
- Feel angry, act aggressively and be irritable instead of showing sadness;
- Feel tired or worn out;
- Lose interest in pleasurable activities;
- Experience a lower libido (sex drive);
- Overeat or have no appetite;
- Experience aches, pains and headaches;
- Use drugs or alcohol to cope;
- Fail to meet daily responsibilities;
- Think of suicide or make plans for suicide.
Consider supporting your friend by showing him this column and encouraging him to seek help. Articulate the obvious – your respect for him is unchanged. You don’t question his strength.
A mental health crisis refers to an acute, intense situation where a person is in danger due to mental health issues. Washington County Behavioral Health and Developmental Services (BHDS) provides the Washington County Crisis Line at 877-225-3567. It is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Help your friend and others move past stigma to seek help.
Have a question? Send it to Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski’s email at email@example.com.