“I was in a melancholy trance all of second semester. I tried offing myself with whatever was in my bathroom cabinet. I was unable to sleep for three days in a row and on the third day I snapped,” senior Reid Williams says. Williams has dealt with depressive tendencies throughout his entire high school career, but it never got worse than it did his junior year. And the effects of his depression had consequences that extended beyond his immediate health. “It turned into a vicious cycle because I couldn’t go to school during the most important time [junior year] for high school students.”
While it’s easy to quote statistics, they rarely tell the entire story, especially when discussing mental disorders. The biggest issue with commonly accepted depression statistics is that our current definition of depression itself tends to write off symptoms more prevalent in males, leaving unaccounted the societal trends that make men less likely to seek help or admit to having a mental disorder.
Take, for example, the widely accepted statistic that women are 70 percent more likely than men to suffer from major depression over their lifetime. This may be true, but only if depression is defined by symptoms that are gender-specific. While commonly accepted symptoms include sadness, difficulty sleeping, and feelings of worthlessness, men suffering from depression commonly exhibit more ‘externalizing symptoms.’ These include anger attacks, aggression or irritability, substance abuse, risk-taking behavior and hyperactivity. The lack of these symptoms in the canonized list means that reported cases of depression have been excluding a large population of men. “When it comes to depression in men, to some extent we have blinders on,” Dr. Andrew Leuchter, a psychiatrist who studies depression at UCLA, says. “We have not been asking about and taking into account a range of symptoms that may be gender-specific.”
A study by health policy researchers from both the University of Michigan and Vanderbilt University show that when a sample of 5,700 American adults was assessed on a revamped “gender inclusive depression scale,” 33.3 percent of women and 30.6 percent of men had experienced a depressive episode at some point in their lifetime. And when evaluated on exclusively a “male symptoms scale,” just 21.9 percent of women had experienced a depressive episode — while 26.3 percent of men had. In other words, when you expand the definition of depression, the gap between the number of men and women suffering closes. Men are also three times as likely as women to successfully commit suicide, due to quicker and more effective methods — men are more likely to use guns, while women more commonly attempt to overdose on pills or bleed themselves out. In fact, suicide is one of the biggest causes of death among men under 50 internationally.
But even that is just a re-assessment of statistics, and the issues with the cultural perception of male depression extend much further than that. The fact is, even in our post-modern society there is still a stigma against men with mental health issues. While depression in women is (wrongly) viewed as slightly inevitable or acceptable, it’s exactly this association with femininity and ‘female fragility’ that prevents men from admitting that they’re suffering — this notion that if a man is depressed, he has a weakness and his masculinity is compromised rather than the reality of his disease. “I think this is still down to stereotypical behavior or role patterns. Even these days it’s still more acceptable for women to say they’re afraid than men,” Dr. Iris Hauth, president of the German Association for Psychiatry, says.
Blair senior Jeff has struggled with major depressive disorder throughout his entire high school life. His episodes can last anywhere from a day to even a few weeks. “Often I won’t even know what it’s in response to because it’s mostly chemical. Which sucks because I’ll think I’m doing something wrong and I’ll push myself to fix every last part of me in hopes to fix it once and for all. I try to keep it on the low though.” This concept of a cultural taboo or expectation is underscored by a recent survey conducted by the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM), in which an overwhelming 69 percent of men said they preferred to deal with problems themselves, and 56 percent said they didn’t want to burden others. “The traditional strong silent response to adversity is increasingly failing to protect men from themselves,” Jane Powell, CALM’s chief executive, says.
These societal norms and perceptions of male depression even reach Montgomery Blair High School. A startling number of male Blazers report experiencing episodic depression already at some point in their life. Senior Denya has struggled with depression from a very young age. “I was first diagnosed with depression in seventh grade,” he says. “They originally thought it was Seasonal Affective Disorder [SAD] because it’s pretty common for people with bad ADHD and learning disabilities as well. That’s also when I started self-harming.”
For Denya, it’s been a long road to even begin the recovery process. “I lasted with that [diagnosis] into my freshman year, which is when I first thought about taking my life,” Denya says. “And yeah, I had rope. My suicide pact ended up being found out and I was sent to the Psychiatric Institute of Washington (PIW), and that was one of the most depressing places I had ever been. One of my roommates was in there for going crazy and almost killing someone with a shotgun, my neighbor thought he was Jesus during the day and a vampire at night. It was hellish.” During Denya’s stint at PIW, he was also re-diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder, Anxiety/Panic Disorder, and amphetamine induced Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.
Denya is currently undergoing Dialectical Behavior Therapy, a treatment originally created for chronically suicidal people suffering from borderline personality disorder, and is coping better with his depression. He also believes there is a greater stigma attached to depression in men than women. “I do think there is more stigma to it [for men]. People tell me to man up, and then call me crazy or psycho when I get mad.”
“I can see how there would be a stigma towards males,” Williams agrees. “Luckily I have close friends who support me to the point where I’m not bothered by what society thinks. I still struggle with it, a lot, but I’ve learned how to deal with it.”
Denya, Jeff, and Williams are not the only ones with stories. Blair senior Quinn McKenzie has had a similar experience. “I’m not sure how long the episodes last,” he says. “I just feel pretty lonely.”
McKenzie has also been struggling with his depressive tendencies for a while now. “It was pretty bad,” he says. “It got so bad that I considered suicide back in October 2014.” And while McKenzie isn’t sure if there’s a stigma against him, he says he wouldn’t be surprised. “Males can get just as depressed as females. I just showed mine differently.”
While never quite reaching suicidal, Jeff has experienced extreme lows as well. “I’ve been to the lowest point of it, particularly in sophomore year when I wouldn’t get out of bed some days and I thought consistently of running away,” he said. “I’m at the tail end of it now, and wouldn’t trade that experience for anything though. Seeing the lowest lows makes the highs so much more beautiful, and I appreciate it for giving me compassion and emotional sensitivity because it helps in relationships.”
And Jeff has also played victim to the vicious stigmas attached to male depression. “There are all types of stigmas,” he said. “I’ve told maybe two people, one of which stopped being my friend because he couldn’t hear all the s**t I was going through, and the other who had his own rock bottom. So I keep it bottled up. No one wants to hear about that.”
These four are not the only male Blazers suffering from depression, but their stories are representative of a larger issue. As heart-wrenching and intense as these stories are, many male Blazers suffer from similar pressure and expectations. And even in those not experiencing their depression in same breadth and intensity as Denya, Jeff, McKenzie, or Williams, depressive tendencies can still significantly harm or hinder daily life.
When we talk about depression, it’s important to recognize the gender disparities and go beyond the traditional definition and conversation. It was Robin Williams who said, “I used to think that the worst thing in life was to end up alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is to end up with people who make you feel alone.” Men suffering from depression are often persecuted and pressured much more than their female counterparts, and therefore have a reluctance to open up and discuss their issues. It’s an issue that’s not easily seen when looking at statistics, and one that permeates our entire society and intermingles with issues from domestic violence to gender equality. Male depression is an unseen killer, and it needs to be addressed and stopped.
Originally published 4/30/16 at Silver Chips Online.