Depression in Men
Why It’s Hard to Recognize and What Helps
Depression is not a sign of emotional weakness or failing of masculinity. It is a treatable health condition that affects millions of men of all ages and backgrounds, as well as those who care about them—spouses, partners, friends, and family. It can also lead to heart disease and other serious medical problems. Of course, it’s normal for anyone to feel down from time to time—dips in mood are an ordinary reaction to losses, setbacks, and disappointments in life. However, if intense feelings of despair and hopelessness take hold of you, and interfere with work, family, and your ability to enjoy life, you may be suffering from depression.
Unfortunately, depression in men can often be overlooked as many of us find it difficult to talk about our feelings. Instead, we tend to focus on the physical symptoms that often accompany depression, such as back pain, headaches, difficulty sleeping, or sexual problems. This can result in the underlying depression going untreated, which can have serious consequences. In fact, men suffering from depression are four times more likely to commit suicide than women. It’s important for any man to seek help with depression before feelings of despair become feelings of suicide. You need to talk honestly with a friend, loved one, or doctor about what’s going on in your mind as well as your body. Once correctly diagnosed, there is plenty you can do to successfully treat and manage depression.
Men can experience depression in different ways to women. You may develop the standard symptoms of depression and become sad and withdrawn, losing interest in friends and activities you used to enjoy. Or you may become irritable and aggressive, compulsively working, drinking more than normal, and engaging in high risk activities.
Unfortunately, men are far less adept at recognizing their symptoms than women. A man is more likely to deny his feelings, hide them from himself and others, or try to mask them with other behaviors. The three most common signs of depression in men are:
- Physical pain. Sometimes depression in men shows up as physical symptoms—such as backache, frequent headaches, sleep problems, sexual dysfunction, or digestive disorders—that don’t respond to normal treatment.
- Anger. This could range from irritability, sensitivity to criticism, or a loss of your sense of humor to road rage, a short temper, or even violence. Some men become abusive, controlling, verbally or physically abusive to wives, children, or other loved ones.
- Reckless behavior. A man suffering from depression may start exhibiting escapist or risky behavior. This could mean pursuing dangerous sports, driving recklessly, or engaging in unsafe sex. You might drink too much, abuse drugs, or gamble compulsively.
Triggers for depression in menThere’s no single cause of depression in men. Biological, psychological, and social factors all play a part, as do lifestyle choices, relationships, and coping skills. Stressful life events or anything that makes you feel useless, helpless, alone, profoundly sad, or overwhelmed by stress can also trigger depression in men. These could include:
- Overwhelming stress at work, school, or home
- Marital or relationship problems
- Not reaching important goals
- Losing or changing a job; embarking on military service
- Constant money problems
- Health problems such as chronic illness, injury, disability
- Recently quitting smoking
- Death of a loved one
- Family responsibilities such as caring for children, spouse, or aging parents
- Retirement; loss of independence
Risk factors for depression in menWhile any man can suffer from depression, there are some risk factors that make a man more vulnerable to the illness, such us:
Don't try to tough out depression on your own. It takes courage to seek help, but most men with depression respond well to treatments such as lifestyle changes, social support, therapy, or medication—or a combination of treatments.The first step is to talk to your doctor. Be open about how you’re feeling as well as the physical symptoms you’re experiencing so your mental health specialist can make an accurate diagnosis.
- Loneliness and lack of social support
- Inability to effectively deal with stress
- A history of alcohol or drug abuse
- Early childhood trauma or abuse
- Aging in isolation, with few social outlets
Lifestyle changes are extremely effective tools at treating depression in men. Even if you need other treatments as well, lifestyle changes can help lift depression and keep it from coming back.
- Therapy. You may feel that talking to a stranger about your problems is ‘unmanly,’ or that therapy carries with it a victim status. However, if therapy is available to you, it can be an extremely effective treatment for depression in men. Opening up to a therapist can often bring a swift sense of relief, even to the most skeptical male.
- Medication. Antidepressant medication may help relieve some symptoms of depression, but doesn’t cure the underlying problem, and is rarely a long-term solution. Medication also comes with side effects. Don't rely on a doctor who is not trained in mental health for guidance on medication, and always pursue healthy lifestyle changes and social support as well.
- Exercise regularly. Regular exercise is a powerful way to fight depression in men. Not only does it boost serotonin, endorphins, and other feel-good brain chemicals, it triggers the growth of new brain cells and connections, just as antidepressants do. It also boosts self-esteem and helps to improve sleep. For maximum results, aim for 30 to 60 minutes of activity on most days.
- Eat well. Eating small, well-balanced meals throughout the day will help you keep your energy up and minimize mood swings. While you may be drawn to sugary foods for the quick boost they provide, complex carbohydrates are a better choice. They'll get you going without the sugar crash. Deficiencies in B vitamins can trigger depression so take a B-complex vitamin supplement or eat more citrus fruit, leafy greens, beans, chicken, and eggs. Foods rich in certain omega-3 fats—such as salmon, walnuts, soybeans, and flaxseeds—can also give your mood a boost.
- Get enough sleep. When you don't get enough sleep, your depression symptoms can be worse. Sleep deprivation exacerbates anger, irritability, and moodiness. Aim for somewhere between 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night.
- Reduce stress. Make changes in your life to help manage and reduce stress. Too much stress exacerbates depression and puts you at risk for future depression. Set realistic goals and break them down into manageable tasks rather than burden yourself with huge objectives all at once. Figure out the things in your life that stress you out, such as work overload or unsupportive relationships, and make a plan to avoid them or minimize their impact.