The Male Experience of Depression

men and depression

Depression doesn’t discriminate based on gender. It affects both men and women. Having said that, it seems women are more likely to suffer from a mental health condition (and twice as likely to have depression), although some experts believe this is due to the fact that women disclose their issues more easily than men do. This is because men grow up with an idea of masculinity that stops them from expressing their feelings in the way that women tend to feel comfortable doing. Men feel that they will be emasculated if they show any vulnerability.

However, even if a lot of men resist opening up about their emotional pain, it can still manifest in some form or another. In fact, the signs and symptoms of depression can differ between men and women. It’s important to be aware of these differences so that you can spot whether you – or anyone that you’re close to – are going through a painful experience that deserves attention.

Of course, these differences can’t be universalised. Not all men repress their feelings, nor do all women speak up about their mental health. They are just differences that tend to be noticeable between the sexes. And they reflect the way that gender roles and norms have evolved over time (for example, men’s relationship to their emotions and other men has shifted dramatically since the 19th century).

Instead of crying, many men will deal with their emotional pain in ways they feel is more acceptable and masculine. Here are some possible signs of male depression (although, it’s worth being in mind that these examples could indicate another mental health issue, which is why seeking the perspective of a suitable psychiatrist can be helpful).

Escapist Behaviour

Rather than fully experience and authentically express the emotional pain going on in their lives, many men will find ways to escape it. One common form of escapist behaviour is spending more time at work. This could relate to the fact that primacy of work is one of the 11 masculine norms identified by psychologists. So overworking may be a way that men with depression attempt to reassert their masculinity. Focusing on your work can help distract you from your depression. But, if you work so much that you avoid confronting the depression – or neglect other areas of your life – then it can make matters a lot worse.

Heavy Drinking or Substance Abuse

Alcohol and drug abuse is often a sign of an underlying mental health issue. It is an attempt to numb, mask, hide, or avoid emotional pain. When men are going through difficult periods in their life, rather than disclose their struggle to someone or seek help, they will reach self-medicate with drinking or by using drugs – this is normalised by phrases like “drown your sorrows”. The problem, though, is that if you can only feel relaxed, at peace, and pain-free by drinking or using drugs, then you can easily develop an addiction, which, in turn, can exacerbate the depression. Without the cultivation of healthier coping mechanisms, there will be a higher risk of addiction.

Controlling, Abusive, or Violent behaviour 

When many men feel their life is out of control, they will look for ways to add a sense of control back into their lives. In a relationship, this can mean they become controlling of their partner. Men may also cope with their depression in the form of abusive or violent behaviour because this is seen as more manly than crying, hugging, or having an open and honest conversation. Psychologists have, after all, have identified violence as another one of the common masculine norms.

Irritability, Aggression, or Anger 

According to the counsellor Jack Rawlings, one of the two acceptable emotions that many men feel they can express is anger (the other being apathy). Feelings of sadness, despair, inadequacy, fear, hurt, and shame might not be seen as very strong or macho, whereas anger and aggression are. So, if you feel that you’re angry a lot of the time, or know a man who is, this could be a sign of depression. Anger and irritability are common symptoms of depression, but they seem to occur more often in men than in women who suffer from the condition.

Many psychologists refer to anger as a secondary emotion, in that it tends to mask more painful and deeper feelings and helps us to avoid facing underlying core issues. Indeed, there is some research suggesting that men often express anger and irritability as a way of coping with their depression, especially if their mental health issues are related to feelings of stress and shame.

A lot of men struggle with persistent and strong feelings of anger because it may feel too emasculating to face the real pain that lies beneath the anger. Admitting to being overwhelmed with stress or anxiety is often the last thing that men want to do if they are overly concerned with upholding an image of themselves as calm, collected, and confident, able to withstand any problem that life throws their way. However, the more vulnerable feelings beneath anger are nothing to be ashamed of. They are normal emotions that exist within all of us, male or female.

Risky Behaviour

High-risk behaviour is a common sign of depression. However, since risk-taking is a masculine norm, this helps to explain why men – more often than women – engage in risky behaviour when they’re depressed. Such behaviour can include self-harm, reckless driving, fighting, unsafe sex, gambling, smoking, heavy drinking and drug abuse, and other forms of reckless and dangerous behaviour.

Unfortunately, the way that men handle their emotional pain differently to women sometimes means that other people get hurt. Aggressive, violent, and controlling behaviour can be directed at loved ones, putting a serious strain on – and sometimes even ruining – those relationships.

In order for men with depression to protect themselves and those that they care about, it’s vital that they connect with their pain in an honest and compassionate way, and seek help when it is necessary.

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