In Spring 2006 the depression of two very successful men made newspaper headlines in Maryland: Phil Merrill, a renowned publisher, entrepreneur and diplomat in the Washington area took his own life. Eleven days later Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan withdrew his candidacy for governor of Maryland because of his struggle with depression.
For weeks, newspapers covered male depression, including the stories of Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Archbishop Raymond Roussin, Mike Wallace, William Styron, Art Buchwald, and Robin Williams.
That was unusual. Because, in the majority of media stories and infomercials, depression is regarded as a feminine thing … a result of all of the hormonal shifts and baby-making stuff. The reality? Six million men, or seven percent of American men, suffer from depression, and millions more suffer silently because they either don’t recognize the symptoms, which can vary from women’s, or they are too ashamed to get help for what they see as a woman’s disease. These 7 techniques were written for men to address the hidden desperation so many feel, and to expose the truth about mood disorders and gender.
1. Get a male perspective.
When I hit bottom after the birth of my second baby, I was lucky enough to see Brook Sheild’s beautiful face on “Oprah” describing how I felt. In her book, and in Kay Redfield Jamison’s “An Unquiet Mind” and Tracy Thompson’s “The Ghost in the House,” I found female companionship, as they articulated what was happening to me. That alone made me less scared.
There are some wonderful books tackling the male perspective of depression. Among them: “I Don’t Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression” by Terrence Real, “Unmasking Male Depression” by Archibald Halt, and, of course, the classic, “Darkness Visible” by William Styron. There are also an array of blogs by men on the topic of depression and mental health. For example, check out “Storied Mind,” “Chipur.com,” “Knowledge Is Necessity,” “Lawyers with Depression,” “Midlife-Men.com,” “Finding Optimism,” and “A Splintered Mind.”
2. Identify the symptoms.
Part of what makes male depression so misunderstood is that a depressed guy doesn’t act the way a depressed lady does, and the feminine symptoms are the ones most often presented in pharmaceutical ads and in glossy brochures you pick up at your doctor’s office . For example, it is not uncommon for a man to complain to his primary care physician about sleep problems, headaches, fatigue and other unspecified pain, some or all of which may be related to untreated depression. In her Newsweek article, “Men & Depression,” Julie Scelfo writes, “Depressed women often weep and talk about feeling bad; depressed men are more likely to get into bar fights, scream at their wives, have affairs or become enraged by small inconveniences like lousy service at a restaurant.”
3. Limit the alcohol.
An interesting study by Yale University discovered that men and women respond to stress differently. According to lead scientist Tara Chaplin, women are much more likely to feel sad or anxious as a result of stress, whereas men turn to alcohol. “Men’s tendency to crave alcohol when upset may be a learned behavior or may be related to known gender differences in reward pathways in the brain,” she said. The tendency, however, puts men at more risk for alcohol-use disorders. And since alcohol is, itself, a depressive, you really don’t want a lot of it in your system. Trust me on this one.
4. Watch the stress.
You can’t drink away your worries, so what DO you do? I offer ten stress busters. But I imagine the most important way to manage stress for men is to work in a job and environment that isn’t … well … toxic. Unfortunately, the more impressive your title, the more stress brewing underneath your skin. Dr. Charles Nemeroff, a psychiatrist who treated both Tom Johnson (president of CNN during the 90s) and philanthropist J.B. Fuqua says stress is a major factor in male depression and a CEO’s (or any executive’s) higher stress level makes them more vulnerable to the illness. The pressure can become unbearable. Unfortunately, some men will have to choose between good mental health and the corner office.
5. Help another dude.
At age 46 Philip Burguieres was running a Fortune 500 company. Now he lends a hand to CEOs who are living lives of quiet desperation and have nowhere to turn. In an interview with PBS, Burguieres said, “I am open about my own experience, and I share my story with other CEOs in lecture settings several times a year [because] I have found that helping other people helps me, and keeps me healthier.” Art Buchwald, another very successful depressive, said in a “Psychology Today” interview some years back that talking about his depression helped him as much as the people he was talking to. It seems to me that the more misunderstood the illness, the greater the need to reach out and help each other.
6. Find an outlet.
One of my male friends who is a tad depressed right now says all he needs to feel better is 18 holes of golf. I’m not sure that chasing the little white ball has the same therapeutic faculties as a high-impact hour of counseling, but I trust that he knows himself better than I know him. What I do know without a doubt is that men are much happier when they can retreat into a “man cave” or a safe corner of the world and do their thing. Some might need a little assistance finding that happy place. So keep trying on those pastimes until one fits and lets you take a deep breath.
7. Tend to the marriage.
Depression leads women into affairs and divorce. But I suspect there are even more casualties with men’s depression. In a poignant blog post, John A. discusses his longing to leave a good marriage as the “active” face of the illness. He writes, “We often focus on the passive symptoms, the inactivity, the isolation, sense of worthlessness, disruption of focused thought, lack of will to do anything. But paradoxically the inner loss and need can drive depressed people to frenzied action to fill the great emptiness in the center of their lives. They may long to replace that inadequate self with an imagined new one that makes up for every loss.” Yet, by loving the partner beside you, even though it can feel counterintuitive and unnatural, you can protect yourself (to a certain extent) from the blows of depression and make yourself more resilient to future episodes.