Talking to a Man about Depression
I discussed in an earlier SharePost how the mental health community is beginning to accept the idea that men tend to exhibit depressive symptoms differently than women. Instead of feeling sadness, a man may feel angry or irritable. Instead of losing interest in activities he previously enjoyed, a man may drink too much or engage in risky behavior.
Now that it’s easier to recognize depression symptoms in a man we know, our next step is to talk to him about it. However, that’s easier said than done. I was involved with a man who went through bouts of depression. It was understandable - he had had a rough childhood and had a parent who was mentally ill. I knew when he was going through a bout - he would drink heavily. But when I would bring up the topic, he would insist that he wasn’t depressed - he was just “in a funk.”
If you want to talk to a man about depression, or have already tried, you may be realizing that it’s a tough subject. The biggest stumbling block may be the threat that being depressed poses to a man’s masculinity. (By the way, I absolutely hate generalizing about any group of people, but unfortunately it’s essential here). If we look at some of the icons of manhood - John Wayne, James Bond, Clint Eastwood - they all have one thing in common. They’re stoic and unemotional. Not the best role models for a man when he’s struggling with depression. Following their example, he would never talk about how he feels about anything, let alone something like depression.
Depression is thought by many, men and women, to be an emotional state, not an illness. Anyone with depression is seen to be weak. Being emotional and being weak are definitely not masculine qualities in the minds of many men. Also, men often don’t have anyone to bounce things off of when it comes to feelings. While women may discuss their depression, given they usually discuss positive or negative feelings with their friends, it is the rare man who feels comfortable telling another man that he’s experiencing depression symptoms.
So how do you broach the subject of depression? You may be his spouse, parent, friend or boss. You’re worried about him and are hoping he’ll get some help. Although I have some suggestions, I would also recommend reading David Wexler’s book, “Is He Depressed or What?” It’s very useful in that it lays out specific strategies and exercises for talking to a man with depression.
- One thing you might want to avoid is using the word “depression.” Men not only exhibit depressive symptoms that are different from those exhibited by women, but the vocabulary they use to describe their depression is also different. Instead of describing themselves as “sad” or “depressed” they may say they’re “stressed” or “tired.” I knew one guy who described his depression as being “in a funk.” So if you are pretty sure that this man will reject the word depression, use something like “stressed” to describe how he seems to you. I know that this seems like semantics, and it is, but it may be a difference that helps a man to open up.
- Given that there is an exception to every rule, there are some men who will be relieved that what they’re feeling has a name and is an illness that can be treated. I know that I was immensely relieved to be told I had depression. After all, you know that something’s wrong; you just may not know what it is. So bear in mind that you may not have to tiptoe around the word “depression.”
- Remember that listening could be as valuable as talking. If he’s actually responding, think about what he’s said. You may see an opening that you can work with.
- Point out specific ways in which his behavior has changed, without sounding critical. For instance, “You don’t seem to enjoy golf as much as you used to,” or “You haven’t gone out biking in weeks.” He may not have noticed the subtle ways in which depression has changed his behavior, and his life.
- Don’t get discouraged if he doesn’t respond. Simply sitting there with him quietly may help him to open up. If not, tell him that you’re always willing to talk about it and leave it for a bit. Evaluate the conversation, think about what definitely didn’t work and what might have helped a bit, and try again in a few days.
- Remember that depression is probably making him react negatively to everything, including (or especially) your attempts to talk about this. Don’t get discouraged or accuse him of being negative.
Deborah Gray wrote about depression as a Patient Expert for HealthCentral. She lived with undiagnosed clinical depression, both major episodes and dysthymia, from childhood through young adulthood. She was finally diagnosed at age 27, and since that time, her depression has been successfully managed with medication and psychotherapy.