How would you respond to this scenario?

For the past two weeks, Kate has been feeling really down. She wakes up in the morning with a flat, heavy feeling that sticks with her all day. She isn't enjoying things the way she normally would. In fact, nothing gives her pleasure. Even when good things happen, they don't seem to make Kate happy.

Would you say Kate was depressed?

Now, what would you think if in the same scenario, all the "she's" were "he's" and Kate was Jack?

That's the question at the heart of a study about how our stereotypes about gender influence how we perceive people with depression.

Researchers posed a more detailed version of the scenario I've described above to subjects, and discovered that more people were likely to identify depression in the scenario featuring Kate than the one featuring Jack—even though the only difference in the two scenarios was gender.

What are a couple possible reasons perceptions might differ?

For one, researchers think that men may have a hard time acknowledging depression among other men—so the men participating in the study may have been less likely to call Jack depressed.

Also, men may identify with Jack and want him to get better on his own, as they would wish to do themselves.

From my perspective, this study potentially calls into question a long-held belief: Do more women than men experience depression? Or is the truth something more along the lines that we are just more likely to see depression in women than in men?

Although I was a bit concerned with the gender stereotypes that seemed to be used in interpreting the study findings, I think that a study like this one challenges our thinking about how perceptions of depression (and the stereotypes that go along with those perceptions) influence how people might be advised to get help.

Both men and women are impacted by the impressions of others. Men, who may be recognized less often than women as experiencing depression, may not be advised to get help they need. On the other hand, perhaps the frequent referral of women to professional mental health services ends up over-representing women’s struggles with emotional health.

What questions does this study raise for you? What thoughts about gender influence your impressions of the way depression “looks”? How did you see Kate and Jack—as the same or as different?

Citation: Swami V (2012) Mental Health Literacy of Depression: Gender Differences and Attitudinal Antecedents in a Representative British Sample. PLoS ONE 7(11): e49779. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0049779

Copyright 2012 Elana Premack Sandler, All Rights Reserved

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