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Depression Among Men: It's Time to Erase the Stigma

Male suicide is rising at an alarming rate.

As a single father who has been raising two teen boys for the past seven years, my goal is and always has been to raise emotionally strong, healthy, independent men; however, that includes being an open communicator and being fully transparent when it comes to expressing our feelings. Unfortunately, American society, like most societies, has traditionally dictated that, as men, we must only show our strengths and never outwardly express our emotions because it is still perceived by many to be a sign of weakness in most professions.

Men have traditionally been raised to remain detached from emotional pain, suffering, and other perceived vulnerabilities and weaknesses because those are still thought to be feminine traits. The problem with this outdated perception is that, as boys, we are taught to suppress our emotions because expressing them will be viewed by others as unmanly, abnormal, emasculating, or in some way damaging to our male egos.

In my opinion, this is a significant factor as to why we are seeing a significant spike in depression among males of all ages, and the current scientific research supports this assertion. Therefore, it is critical that we embrace and accept those perceived emotional vulnerabilities as not weaknesses, but rather as strengths, and accept that no one is truly perfect. After all, the term “perfection” is a socially constructed term that cannot be uniformly defined. How do we describe the perfect physical body, the perfect level of intelligence, and the perfect personality? It is all based on perception as to how we see ourselves and how others see us.

Despite the widespread acceptance of mental illness as a specialized subcategory within the larger medical profession, men who acknowledge having depression are still stigmatized, criticized, ridiculed, and ostracized in American society, especially men who work in professions that expect emotional invincibility, resiliency, and strength. Ridiculous phrases such as "man up," “toughen up,” and "be strong" are statements (or rather advice) constantly used by friends, family, and employers, as if it were that easy to turn on “happiness.” No one chooses to feel sad, lonely, or empty. There is no logic in thinking that people choose to be depressed.

Depression and anxiety are clinical psychological disorders that fall under the broader category of mental illness. When most think of mental illness, they often conjure up images of chaotic, abusive, psychiatric hospitals filled with individuals completely out of touch with reality, ingesting dozens of anti-psychotic pills a day, and unable to function in society. Scenes from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest come to mind, but that is an incorrect assumption that paints an inaccurate picture of what most experience.

Psychological disorders can range from relatively minor to debilitating and severe, from situational to acute to chronic, and the onset of the disorders can emerge in early childhood, adolescence, or adulthood. Depression and anxiety can be hereditary and therefore, inherently passed down from our parents, stem from hormonal and/or chemical imbalances, and can result from distressing social, environmental stressors and experiences such as divorce, loss of a job, an illness or injury, death of a loved one, abuse of any kind, or witnessing / experiencing something horrific and traumatic.

Our depressive thoughts can be quite destructive, especially when we are left alone, often because of purposely isolating and distancing ourselves from others. This is especially common for men suffering from anxiety, depression, or in many cases, these men are consumed by both disorders, which could easily spiral into addiction, alcoholism, and thoughts of suicide. For those who suffer from anxiety, it can feel like your mind is constantly racing in an endless loop or cycle where you feel completely wired and out of control over your competing thoughts. Most with anxiety would agree that it is incredibly challenging, if not impossible, to shut your thoughts down, especially at 2 or 3 am when you cannot keep yourself busy and distracted. The obsessive thinking and compulsive feelings of worry, despair, and desolation can be quite consuming and can literally come out of nowhere and at any time.

At other times, depression and darkness set in with a vengeance and oftentimes, with little to no warning, leading to feelings of helplessness, lethargy, and what I would describe as an emptiness or numbness inside as if there is an emotional void. Despite all the positive aspects in our lives that we KNOW are going well on a conscious level, the demons inside our minds sabotage those positive thoughts with negativity and cynicism on a subconscious level, which in turn, clouds our conscious, rational judgments and perceptions, and quickly drains and darkens our views as to how we falsely see the world.

As I sat down to write this piece, I wanted to convey an important message that depression and anxiety are often purposely hidden from others, even those we are closest to, whether it be family or friends. The photo that I selected for this piece captures what it is like to have depression and anxiety, and I believe that this picture is fitting because I feel that most of us wear a fictitious mask in public in which we show the world our smiles, we openly share jokes and laughs, and constantly exude happiness with our "social faces," but deep inside, our thoughts can sometimes be in conflict and turmoil, yet we work so hard to never let that "face," our truest, realist reflection of ourselves, appear in social settings and be shown to others.

There is a Japanese saying in which you have three faces.

The First Face, you show to the world. This is the mask that we put on when we engage with people while traveling, working, on social media, etc.

The Second Face, you show only to your close friends and your family, those you truly trust.

The Third Face, you never show to anyone because it is the truest reflection of who you are. This is the utmost inner truth of who we are and what we think.

I have had my own battles with depression and anxiety for as long as I could remember, although I do believe that I now have a deeper understanding of both and have devised coping strategies that have helped minimize my panic attacks and bouts of depression. I know that I am not alone since both disorders are common psychological disorders with varying degrees of intensity.

Nevertheless, the stigma is still there, especially among men and that desperately needs to change. Depression, in particular, is a silent killer because the average man is hesitant or unwilling to seek treatment for a number of reasons. As men, we are taught and honestly believe that we can handle it on our own. It is an inflated, yet false sense of self-reliance stemming from how we have been raised as men to always be strong and in control. The problem is that we typically “handle it” by drinking, misusing over-the-counter or prescription medications, and engage in other unhealthy coping strategies as opposed to talking about it openly with others.

According to a recent Men's Health article (May 2018), more than 6 million men suffer from depression on any given day and more than 3 million suffer from anxiety on any given day. While those statistics are not necessarily startling, what follows are:

  • Male suicide is rising at such an alarming rate that it is has been classified as a silent epidemic.
  • Men are four times more likely than women to commit suicide.
  • Suicide is now the second most common cause of death among men from age 10 to 39.
  • A staggering 75% - 80% of all U.S “completed” suicides are men.
  • Women are more likely to “attempt” suicide, but men are more likely to complete the act and that is largely due to the violent manner in which men choose to end their lives (firearms).
  • Men are less likely to openly exhibit warning signs or discuss suicidal ideations and thoughts with others even with those that we know and trust.
  • One out of every five men will develop an alcohol dependency during his life to cope with depression and anxiety.
  • More than 90% of those diagnosed with Schizophrenia by age 30 are men.
  • An estimated 10 million men suffer from an eating disorder.

The list goes on. Why? As men, we have been taught from a very early age that expressing yourself emotionally is largely a feminine trait and that is why men are more likely to describe depression and anxiety through physical descriptions such as feeling tired, achy, rundown, burnt-out, etc., all of which are socially acceptable. If you search for “men and depression” on Google, the number of sources is limited to nine pages. To put this in perspective, in 2014, Google indexed 67 BILLION pages, and the information pertaining to men and depression is limited to 9.

Bottling up our emotions can and likely will, adversely affect our physical well-being. The release of the stress hormone cortisol can lead to weight gain, cardiovascular disease, and other problematic physical ailments. For example, in June 2011, a Harvard University study reported that a significant physical concern for men with depression is cardiovascular disease. Depression is a well-known risk factor for coronary artery disease, heart attack, and stroke. Men are especially vulnerable because they develop these diseases at a higher rate and at an earlier age than women.

Why discuss it openly and publicly now? We are moving in a direction, a good direction, in which many are coming forward publicly about their bouts with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, addiction, and alcoholism. I have always been a proponent of open communication. I believe that speaking about an issue or concern creates awareness and awareness leads to education and education leads to change. As a writer, I now have a platform to shed more light on the issues that I feel warrant more attention.