Is depression sadness, hopelessness, and worthlessness?

Or is depression rage, risk-taking, substance abuse, and workaholism?

New research says it can be a combination of these symptoms, and how you experience depression may depend on if you’re a man or a woman.

Traditionally, depression’s symptoms have been characterized as anger turned inward, a shutting down and closing in.

Researchers developing new checklists for depression expanded the list of behaviors associated with of depression in order to help diagnose depression more accurately, especially among men. And, among men, depression looks different. It can involve anger turned outward.

What’s interesting about this research?

  • By taking a new look at depression’s symptoms and creating a new definition of what it means to experience depression, more men may recognize that they need help.
  • It may help to explain why, despite a higher prevalence of depression among women, more men die by suicide.
  • Explanations for why more men die by suicide, such as the choice of more lethal means, line up with symptoms such as risk-taking and rage. This line of research could lead to further understanding of risk factors for suicide.

What’s important to remember?

  • The major finding in this study is that when “traditional” and “alternative” symptoms are used to help identify depression, men and women may be identified as depressed in equal numbers.
  • As with drawing conclusions from any population-based research study, it’s important to take individuality into account. Some men may display these “alternative” symptoms, while some may display more “traditional” symptoms. Some women will display “alternative” symptoms. So, using an expanded checklist may help everyone.
  • Women are still dying by suicide. Understanding the role gender may play in the experience of depression is important for both men and women. This research should hopefully lead to designing programs and policies that address gender-specific needs without giving more value to one gender over another.

As much as I’m excited about this new research, I’m cautious about putting people into boxes. Gender isn’t simple, as much as our culture tries to make it so. Depression isn’t simple either.

Thinking about the possibilities uncovered by this research, I balance optimism about the development of new tools to diagnose depression, curiosity about what it is about gender (biology? socialization?) that might make the experience of depression different, and hope that future research will build on one the unanswered questions of this research team: Is it masculinity and femininity that influence depression, rather than sex or gender?

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