According to Mental Health America (MHA), women experience depression about twice as often as men. That said, several studies and surveys have also shown that men are less likely to seek help for things like depression—which might create a false idea that women are more likely to struggle with this mental health problem.
The reality is that both men and women deal with depression; however, men are less likely to recognize that there might be a problem, open up about the problem, and seek the help that they need to manage it. Why? And where do we go from here?
Social Stigma and a Lack of Emotional Literacy
So, as we have established, depression is common among men, but they don’t report it as often as women. As it turns out, men are often either trying to keep up the “tough-guy act” or they just don’t know how to explain what they’re feeling. Consider:
- Jacob has been feeling really down lately. He has no desire to go to work each morning and he doesn’t even want to hang out with his friends. The idea of working or socializing is exhausting alone but he continues on as best he can. He makes it to work most days, and when he doesn’t, he tells his manager he’s feeling sick. He continues to chat and hang out with his friends, too, a smile painted on his face. “Grin and bear it,” he tells himself.
- Eli isn’t his normal happy-go-lucky self. He hasn’t been for a few months now. It’s hard for him to put into words—all he knows is that he’s never felt like this before. He’s always loved running and drawing comic strips. But lately, it’s hard for him to work up the motivation to do either. And when he does manage to go for a run or sit down to focus on a new comic, it’s not fun like it used to be. In fact, nothing’s very enjoyable anymore.
The tough-guy act stems from the social stigma that says men don’t have feelings or are supposed to be strong. Mackenzi Kingdon, a Licensed Mental Health Counselor explains: “Due to social stigma, men report depression or seek mental health treatment far less often than women.” On the other hand, the struggle to explain or articulate how they’re feeling can often be explained by their upbringing. “Men are not usually exposed to emotional vocabulary in the same way women are,” Kingdon explains. “At a young age, women are taught to share a range of emotions. Boys are often taught the opposite: ‘Big boys don’t cry!’ ‘Man up!’”
Kingdon goes on to explain that this lack of emotional literacy doesn’t just hinder their ability to explain how they’re feeling, but to understand and identify their feelings themselves. “When you don’t have the language to explain something to someone else, it is just as hard to explain it to yourself,” she says.
Understanding the Male Language
Both men and women can experience a wide range of depression symptoms from general unhappiness and dissatisfaction to sleep disturbances, feelings of guilt, and changes in weight. Here is a more comprehensive list:
- General discontent
- Mood swings
- Sleep disturbances
- Loss of appetite
- Changes in weight
- Lack of concentration
- Suicidal thoughts
However, men often describe these symptoms in a different manner. According to Psychotherapist Laura Dabney, they attempt to explain what they’re feeling in a way that makes them feel more secure. “Men often put a positive or masculine spin on their depression because they think being overwhelmed with emotions is girly or needing help is weak. So, instead of saying they are sad, they will say enraged or angry; instead of hopeless or helpless, they say loss of interest; instead of crying, they say they’ve been irritable or snappy. They will also say they need sex as opposed to closeness, intimacy, or a partner who understands them.”
Changing the Narrative and Empowering Men to Open Up
This isn’t a male issue—it’s a societal issue. And there are two essential steps that we must take: We must all work together to normalize conversations about mental health among men (and others) and also work on pursuing mental health help whenever we might need it:
1) Normalize conversations about mental health.
Having open conversations about mental health empowers others to talk about their own feelings and garner the support that they might need to get through these tough emotions. Parker Hogsten, who is in the midst of navigating his own mental health journey (as we all are), stands up for male mental health:
“Men can cry. Men can be sad. Men can get anxious. Men can get overwhelmed. We need to normalize talking to our male friends about their mental health. Tell them you love them. Tell them you’re there for them. Hug them. Be a shoulder to lean on. It’s not un-masculine to reach out for help or take medication.”
2) Pursue mental health help.
In following through with step 1, men (and others) will begin to gain the courage they need to reach out to a mental health professional, of whom can help them explore their emotions and deal with mental illnesses like depression. Both counseling and medication can prove effective in managing such illnesses, but counseling specifically can help men understand why it might be harder for them to recognize and discuss how they’re feeling. Kingdon says that she does her best to assist male clients in realizing that everyone does not, in fact, have everything figured out and that it’s okay to need help:
“While working with men who are experiencing depression and simultaneously trying to avoid those feelings, I always remind them that they were not given the gift of emotional literacy at a young age. They are now faced with figuring it out themselves in a day and age where everyone looks like they have it figured out. To an extent, this is new territory and of course it feels scary and strange. Realizing that they are pioneering a new feeling in themselves can help boost confidence and serve as a reminder to be patient.”
Fortunately, more people are seeking and receiving mental health care today than ever before. The men that are opening up and reaching out for mental health help are helping to change the narrative as these actions can help teach future generations of men to acknowledge their feelings and seek help when they need it, too.