MEN SUFFER IN SILENCE
Because of the stigma attached, many males battling depression mask the problem
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
By ELISE McINTOSH
STATEN ISLAND ADVANCE
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — Men aren't "supposed" to be depressed; it's "unmanly" and "weak."
Men who can't "take it like a man" are "wusses."
Or, at least that's the kind of ignorant attitude that persists in our society.
The truth is, six million men in the United States are diagnosed with clinical depression each year — which does not account for all the men, conflicted by this lingering notion of depression as a female problem, who are too ashamed to seek help.
Because males express symptoms differently than females, depression in men often is "masked" and harder for loved ones to detect.
That was the case with Lois and Jack Baird. Their son, Glen, committed suicide in 1998 at age 33. The Annadale couple had no inkling their son was battling depression, describing him as the "life of the party."
A senior inspector with the U.S. Customs Service at John F. Kennedy Airport, he was well-respected at work. He received numerous commendations and twice was invited to travel to Kuwait to set up narcotics programs for the Kuwait Customs Service.
Mr. Baird said that at Glen's burial, there were so many people from his work who wanted to serve as honor guards, they had to rotate turns carrying the coffin.
After the Bairds laid their son to rest, pieces of his troubled past emerged. They found a book in his home on how to commit suicide, and a co-worker revealed Glen had been taking an antidepressant that, as one of its side effects, can cause anxiety.
The biggest glimpse into Glen's state of mind, though, came when their daughter revealed his secret: He had been molested as a young child by a close family friend.
"Glen hid his depression so well that people in customs who are trained to look for these symptoms were unaware," Mrs. Baird read from a statement she and her husband prepared. "He was talented at putting up a false front" — just like a lot of men grappling with depression.
SHAPED BY OUR CULTURE
Because of the gender expectations inherent in our society, there is a lot of pressure on men to act tough and show no signs of weakness, said Mary Guardino, founder and executive director of Freedom From Fear, a Dongan Hills-based nonprofit mental health advocacy association that helps people affected by anxiety and depression.
In our society, she said, "Men are 'supposed' to be strong. They 'shouldn't' cry … or say they feel helpless."
"Men are taught that emotional problems are kept to yourself," added Dr. Michael Addis, a professor of psychology at Clark University, Worcester, Mass., and lead investigator of the university's Men's Coping Project, a study investigating how men experience depression differently than women.
While he doesn't like to overgeneralize about how men respond to depression — noting each male experiences it in his own unique way — he does see certain trends with male depression, like the stigma surrounding it.
"Men have a great deal of shame about being depressed," he said. Some even "get depressed about being depressed.
"Because it is so stigmatized," he added, "men are less likely to open up about it or get help."
Which, in part, may explain the high suicide rate among males. According to the Centers for Disease Control, men in the United States are about four times more likely than women to commit suicide (though women are twice as likely to make an attempt).
Another part of the problem, Dr. Addis noted, is, since males are socialized to be emotionally stoic and are less in touch with their feelings, depressed men often don't realize what they are experiencing is depression.
Unlike "women [who] are more apt to talk and say that they feel sad or blue or down," Ms. Guardino observed, "men become detached from their emotional pain" and often blame external factors — such as their wives or bosses — as the source of their problems.
With men, the symptoms aren't as obvious, she added, noting even mental health professionals sometimes have a difficult time diagnosing depression in males, who often enter therapy ostensibly for other reasons.
While they may experience some of the classic signs — sadness, despair, apathy — men tend to exhibit symptoms that are more culturally permissible for them, like self-medicating with drugs and alcohol.
"In general, it is more acceptable for a woman to be depressed and a man … to be drunk," Dr. Addis explained.
Symptoms of male depression also may be "masked" as social withdrawal, aggression, irritability and lack of impulse control, Ms. Guardino said.
Since men are less likely than women to seek help, it's particularly important loved ones be vigilant.
Especially relatives of men in male-dominated institutions — like the military or law enforcement — should watch for red flags. As Ms. Guardino explained, many of these males witness numerous atrocities yet, not wanting to seem weak, resist seeking treatment.
As the Bairds know, even being close to someone doesn't prevent the worst from happening.
"After it happens," Mr. Baird said of losing a child to suicide, "a piece of you dies."
With the support of family, friends and others whose children took their own lives, "We realized we can get on with our lives," he said, quickly adding, "Not that we don't think of him every day."
ot;There are hard times — birthdays, family gatherings," Mrs. Baird added. "You have this hole left in your life."
Elise McIntosh, editor of the Relationships section, may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.