THE STIGMA OF DEPRESSION IN MEN:
We’re ignoring the stigma surrounding mental health that stops many men from seeking help when they need it most — and it’s literally killing them. A lot of men fall prey to the false idea that they should be “tough enough” to fix all their problems on their own. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, men died by suicide at a rate of 3.54 percent higher than women in 2017.
Mental Health America reports 6 million men are affected by depression in the United States every single year. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism puts the annual number of men dying due to alcohol-related causes at 62,000, compared to 26,000 women. And men are also two to three times more likely to misuse drugs than women. Depression and suicide are ranked as a leading cause of death among men, and yet they’re still far less likely to seek mental health treatment than women.
The stigma men face
“I think part of it may be this macho thing,” Dr. Raymond Hobbs, a physician consultant at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, told Healthline. “A lot of guys don’t want to admit they have this problem. They still see depression as a sign of weakness.” He was clear that this type of thinking is outdated, a relic of previous generations that doesn’t speak to the current medical understanding of mental illness.
“We know so much more now, and we recognize the chemical changes that take place. In many ways, mental illness is just like diabetes, or any other physical condition,” he said. But Hobbs points out a lot of people don’t look at it that way. Instead they still see mental health struggles as a personal issue and a lack of personal fortitude. Because of that, and the stigma that still exists surrounding mental illness (not to mention, the pressure on men to always be strong), a lot of men struggle with admitting they may need help.
“There is work for us to do as a society regarding the stigma of asking for help,” Zach Levin of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation told Healthline. “While we have done a much better job of reducing stigma and expanding opportunities for support, men still may be experiencing shame and guilt that could lead to them being less willing to ask for help.”
The burden of toxic masculinity
It’s not just asking for help that men seem to struggle with. Research Trusted Source has found that some men also have a harder time establishing social connections. The American Psychological Association has a podcast all about how masculinity can actually be a burden on mental health.
“When you’re talking about toxic masculinity,” Hobbs explained, “it really comes down to the way males are brought up. They way we’re taught to be strong and quiet. If you look at the old John Wayne movies, which was the model we were supposed to aspire to. But it’s also a model that is dysfunctional in many ways.” This model of masculinity may be why men are more likely to underreport symptoms of depression. But certain, more traditionally masculine traits can also contribute to increased rates of depression, according to research Trusted Sourcethat’s found both negative and protective factors to traditional masculinity.
When the negative impact is an increase in depressive symptoms, substance misuse can often follow. “If men are less willing to ask for help, they will continue to experience the symptoms contributing to depression,” Levin said. “Drug use is often a maladaptive coping strategy.” As he puts it, when people struggling with depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions aren’t embracing healthy coping resources, they may turn to alcohol and other drugs as a way to numb the pain.
The problem is, how do we as a society change men’s perception of seeking help before they get to that point?
Reducing the stigma
Levin says a lot of men fall prey to the false idea that they should be “tough enough” to fix all their problems on their own. They worry that by showing vulnerability, even in the case of physical illness, they may lose their authority with others. As a result, “They may believe they can fix this problem quickly and move on to the next — and they may be in denial that there is a problem at all,” Levin said. Addressing that, and helping men work past it, requires first ending the stigma of asking for help.
“We can all foster more transparency around mental health and substance abuse issues,” Levin said. “No one is immune to stress. Talking with others about how it is affecting you can foster empathy, camaraderie, and support — all of which fight against the feelings of isolation on which addiction and mental health issues can thrive.”
Hobbs believes a lot of this comes down to education as well.
“We need people to realize that these are medical problems, that there are good treatments available, and that there is hope involved,” he said.
Hobbs also wants people to know that untreated mental health issues can very quickly manifest into physical ailments, especially when people are self-treating with alcohol and other substances.
“Cirrhosis, gastritis, bleeding problems, actual changes that occur in the brain: We need people to realize that there is a real physical downside to long-term alcohol abuse,” Hobbs said. For Hobbs, awareness and education play the biggest role in terms of what can be done to help people as early as possible. “You have to talk to your loved ones. There are all these wonderful options available that can help, but first they have to be willing to try them,” he said.
When is it time to ask for help?
If you’re worried that someone you care about may be struggling, or you think that you yourself need help, Hobbs says to look for these signs that indicate a need for outside assistance:
change in mood
difference in work performance
sadness, hopelessness, or anhedonia (a loss of pleasure and pulling away from things that used to provide enjoyment)
physical symptoms, such as headaches and stomach issues
If you recognize any of these symptoms in a loved one, Levin recommends reminding them that asking for help can be a sign of strength rather than weakness, and that we have a lot of resources available. Try to schedule an appointment with a primary care provider or a substance use disorder professional (in cases where alcohol or other drugs are being used to self-medicate).
“It is much more palatable to propose a single appointment with a specialist to determine whether a problem exists than to propose the commitment of an inpatient or outpatient treatment program to your loved one,” Levin explained. Still, if scheduling that appointment seems too daunting, he says that the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation offers free, phone-based appointments and can be reached by calling 877-863-8045.
“There is hope. Help is available. Educate yourself about your or your loved one’s addiction and mental health issues. Participate in peer support groups or family support, such as Al-Anon, Families Anonymous, or a support group for families coping with addiction and mental health issues,” Levin said.
To treat this problem, we must get the message across that it’s OK to ask for help, whether for yourself, your loved ones, or anyone you think may need it.
And for those who have overcome mental health obstacles in their own lives, don’t be afraid to share your own stories. Sometimes reducing stigma means being willing to talk about the times we’ve needed to ask for help ourselves.