Male Depression and Stigma

My dad gave me a love for college basketball and football; for the Packers, the Badgers – and now along with my son, Badger men’s and women’s hockey. So it may come as a surprise, but the first thing I do when I get up in the morning is check out ESPN and Sports Illustrated News on the Web. (Only then do I check out The New York Times!)

Reading the sporting news, I know that male depression and stigma is very much on the nation’s mind these days. In recent months and years several professional hockey and football players have died from suicide. The general interpretation is that these men had depression.

Male depression. I know it fairly well. My earliest memory is of my father being taken away by an ambulance because he had been carrying a shotgun and threatening to shoot himself on our dairy farm in rural Wisconsin. Too much stigma in 1955 for him to ask for help.

Too much stigma for ever afterward for my dad. The family just seemed to wait, to walk on egg shells when the extreme irritability started. We could do nothing right. We waited, for the “mood’’ to pass, or heaven help us, to find him some day after another suicide attempt, usually an overdose. Too much stigma and shame for anyone to talk to his six children about his “nervous breakdowns” and the suicide attempts.

Too much stigma and shame over an illness. Yes AN ILLNESS, a brain disorder, that still plagues our men: Your loving fathers, brothers, sons, grandfathers, uncles, and special friends and revered colleagues. Women have a higher incidence of depression than men and also attempt suicide at higher rates, but men are on record with more suicide completions.

Stigma and shame can be overwhelming and extremely painful, making reaching out for assistance impossible. Reaching out can seem absolutely foolhardy; destroying status and career, self esteem and dreams. The only “solution” to serious depression, the only “action” he can envision, is self-inflicted death.

Especially for men, depression often goes unrecognized, undiagnosed, and untreated by themselves, their family and friends and physicians. Why? What makes male depression hard to recognize?

  • For many men, feeling sad or emotional isn’t always the main symptom of depression. For example, headaches, digestive problems, fatigue, irritability or chronic pain can sometimes indicate depression. So can feeling isolated and seeking distraction to avoid dealing with feelings or relationships. Result? Failure to recognize depression.
  • Many men have placed a premium on self-control, thinking it’s “unmanly” to express feelings and emotions. Result? Downplaying signs and symptoms, and a reluctance to discuss depression symptoms.
  • Men may avoid getting the help they need because they are worried that the stigma of depression could damage their career and cause family and friends to lose respect for the them. Result? Resisting mental health treatment.

My father fit this male depression picture quite well. There seemed to be a continuity of complaints about physical pain and indigestion, while our extended family spoke anxiously of the “character flaw” they supposed he had. Dad certainly would not discuss how he was feeling emotionally (other than “fine”) or accept any hint of mental health evaluation or possible need for treatment.

As I said, my Dad gave me the love of professional sports. That memory clicked into place recently when I read an especially thoughtful and moving piece on male depression.  It was a Opinion Column written by Detroit News Sportswriter Chris McCosky. The article, published May 5th, 2012, was “Junior Seau’s death sheds light on ignorance of depression” In this piece the writer discloses his own lifelong battle with depression. Let me share a few quotes from his article (used with permission):

“…. what we had better figure out quickly is a way to educate people and remove the negative stigma attached to depression. We have to make it easier for everybody to reach out and seek help, but especially for macho Alpha-male types like Seau, Dave Duerson and Ray Easterling and the three NHL enforcers [especially tough hockey players] who recently took their own lives —- Wade Belak, Rick Rypien and Derek Boogaard.”

“There is no shame in getting sick. I know there are other people out there like me, athletes or otherwise, who are fighting this battle silently and alone, without therapy or meds. We may think we got it licked. But we don’t.”

“Take it from me, stubbornness and stupidity, vanity and pride serve only as barriers to good health.”

“Getting through life isn’t the same as living life.”

Men, good men, it takes courage to ask for help.