Is There a Difference Between Male and Female Depression?

by Anne Windermere Patient Advocate

Depression can happen to anybody including both men and women. Yet there can be some significant differences in how depression is experienced by the sexes. One notable gender difference can be found in the statistics of who gets diagnosed with depression. The National Institute of Mental Health
reports that Major Depressive Disorder is more prevalent in women than in men. In fact, women are said to be twice as likely as men to experience depression. But are women really more depressed than men or can this statistic be explained by the fact that more women seek treatment than men do for their depression? In addition to differences in the prevalence of depression among men and women there are also differences to be noted as far as symptoms experienced and coping styles. So when we talk about male and female depression are we talking about apples and oranges or are there more similarities than differences? Can a man, for example, truly understand what his female spouse is going through when she says she is depressed? And likewise, can women fully empathize with what a man feels when he is diagnosed with the same thing?

In order to gain some understanding of these gender differences in how men and women experience depression, I have enlisted the aid of both male and female mental health writers to provide their take on this somewhat controversial issue. My hope is that we will gain a better perspective and empathy for what the opposite sex goes through in coping with depression.

  • Our first comment comes from ShrinkRapRoy who is a psychiatrist and blogger for Shrink Rap, a blog written by psychiatrists for psychiatrists. Their blog happens to be quite popular among patients as well.

Here's my take on it, Merely Me. Major Depression is pretty much the same for men and women. The diagnostic criteria are the same for each gender. However, risk factors may be different (think postpartum and post-retirement). Also, the symptoms themselves may be experienced differently in men and women based more on social factors than biology. Loss of sex drive may bother more men than women, for example. Women may be more concerned about weight gain than men, so they may be less tolerant of a medication's weight-related side effects.

One of the differences I see as a psychiatrist is that women seem to be more likely to come in asking for help with depression, whereas men seem less likely to ask for help (they don't like to stop at the gas station to ask for directions, either). Men are more likely than women to seek help for depression because someone (friend, spouse, family, boss) pushed them to do so.

Thank you, ShrinkRapRoy. It does seem that more women come to our site than men. Or at least the women are more vocal about their depression. It is my opinion that many more men have depression than the statistics show. I think that what you say here validates my hypothesis that perhaps more women are being diagnosed because they are the ones coming in to see a doctor for help. One of the more popular requests on MyDepressionConnection comes from the wives and girlfriends asking how to get their depressed male partner to seek treatment.

Any thoughts on this from our members?

  • Our next expert is none other than Doctor Deb Serani who is a practicing psychoanalyst and blogger extraordinaire. Her blog is called Dr. Deb: Psychological Perspectives.
    In a mini-interview Dr. Deb offers her perspective on male vs. female depression.

Is female depression that much different than male depression?

Major Depressive Disorder - and other mood disorders - have the same diagnostic traits and characteristics for women and men. However, men and women may present with symptoms of depression differently. For example, men may seem more agitated and angry when depressed whereas women may appear irritable or frustrated. Certainly hormonal changes can affect any mood disorder, so being female heightens those odds. Women are more prone to anemia, so it's important to assess medically for those issues.

If there are differences, are they in the way we are diagnosed, how the symptoms manifest, support given or other variables?

Women tend to be able to identify and express their depressive symptoms better than men. So, women tend to get diagnosed more frequently, more accurately and receive treatment more often than men. Men tend to suppress their depressive experiences. Socially, boys are shaped to hold in their emotions and taught to "shake things off". Unfortunately, depression is not something that you can ignore or will away. As for diagnostics, health professionals use standardized depressive checklists or clinical interviews to assess for depression. As mentioned before, it's important to rule out of medical conditions like anemia, diabetes, thyroid issues etc., which can "look like" depression. These are generally done by a physician with lab tests.

Or do you think that depression is depression and that gender has little to do with how we experience having a mood disorder?

Genetics has a great deal to do with who we are. It dictates our temperament, reactions styles and problem solving abilities. Depression is also strongly linked to genetics. So, genetics sets the stage for what we may encounter in our life. Gender takes it one step further. Being male or female can help or hurt our awareness and treatment of it. Women tend to be more open and emotionally attuned, whereas men aren't. This is why educational programs and health campaigns are aimed at young children to teach them early about depression, as well as the importance of talking about issues. So much goes into who we are and how we behave. I don't think it's a black and white issue. The best advice I can give is to know who you are, your biology and your biography so you can make unique decisions about your health.

What do you feel men might not "get" about a woman's depression?

My female patients report that the "helplessness" of depression is a sore-spot with their husbands or boyfriends. The guys can't seem to understand the inertia many women feel, the lack of direction, the inability to solve the depression problem quickly, things like that. My male patients tell me that their spouses often get mad at their irritability or anger. The point here is that the symptoms of depression will be unique for each person. Those who don't experience this mental illness need to keep in mind that diagnosis, treatment and improvement is not a cookie cutter experience. Patience, understanding and education can be extremely important.

Thank you Doctor Deb. It does seem that what you say here is consistent with what ShrinkRapRoy has said. Women tend to seek treatment more frequently than the men do. In addition men may experience more symptoms of anger and irritability than some women. However, I do believe you are very accurate to say that this is not a black and white issue. We are all individuals regardless of gender and as such we will all experience depression in our unique way.

John writes:

I think there is a difference, not in the underlying disorder, but in the way men express what they're going through. As happened to me when growing up, men get a lot of training in the importance of not revealing emotions. It isn't "manly" to cry or complain or talk about feelings, and so they never learn how to deal with emotion very well. When depression hits, a man raised in that way will just keep it to himself and perhaps lock the whole thing out of his own awareness. When there's a lot of inner pain, though, and getting through each day becomes harder and harder, men can often get aggressive, angry and blaming. Since they're not aware of their own depression, the problems they're having must be caused by someone or something else. I lived this way for a long time, and I think a lot of men have.

Thank you John, for your candid response. I am hoping our male readers will also talk about how they experience depression and the challenges that they face because of it.

Eileen writes:

Twice as many women suffer with depression than men, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. There may be a number of reasons for this. For one, men are known for not seeking medical help, especially for mental illness. After all, men are supposed to be the strong sex. They are supposed to be able to handle anything. So many find it difficult to seek out help for depression, instead seeing their feelings of hopelessless as a sign of weakness, feeling as if they are inadequate because they can't handle life. Even when men reach out to a physician for help, it is hard for men to talk about emotions and feelings. Instead, they may focus on the physical aspects of depression, the fatigue or the aches and pains, and look for solutions to make their body feel better, while ignoring their emotional health. Another reason is that women are used to going to the doctor for check-ups, where men are used to putting it off.

Depression is a treatable illness. It can be and often is managed so that those suffering with depression lead satisfying lives. But in order to find the best treatment, it is imperative to talk with your doctor, to not be ashamed of feeling sad, worthless or hopeless and to reach out for help. No matter how difficult it may be to start the conversation about how you feel, in the end it will pay off. Depression can be managed. You can enjoy your life again.

Thanks Eileen Once again, it seems that what you say here is consistent with what our other experts are saying. One huge difference with men and women when it comes to any sort of mental illness or disorder is that it seems men usually are more reluctant to seek treatment. The big question is how do we change this?

Now it is your turn to join our discussion. Do you feel that there are fundamental differences between men and women in how they experience depression? What do you make of the statistic that twice as many women are diagnosed with depression as men? Is there something we need to be doing to reach men who are reluctant to seek treatment? Is there something you wish the opposite sex knew about how you feel when you are depressed? Talk to us! We are eagerly awaiting your response.

Anne Windermere
Meet Our Writer
Anne Windermere

These articles were written by a longtime HealthCentral community member who shared valuable insights from her experience living with multiple chronic health conditions. She used the pen name "Merely Me."