I'm seeing a lot of men struggling with depression, and wives seeking help because their husbands are depressed and they don't know where else to turn. While considerable similarities exist across gender, male depression tends to show up differently and in more concealed ways than in women. On top of that, the male stigma against emotional openness, and asking for help, puts so much pressure on men to sort things out in isolation. This internalizing makes climbing out of unhappiness that much harder and only exacerbates the tendency for men’s depressive symptoms to show up in often destructive ways.
I believe many men can be so much happier, along with their partners and families, if we talk more about this. I am hoping to shed light on the often undetected signs of depression in men and what tends to be at the root. And most importantly, offer some tools for healing depression and lifting oneself into a life of happiness.
SOME SURPRISING SIGNS OF MALE DEPRESSION
One way to learn about greater happiness comes from understanding what its absence looks like. If you’re male or close to one, maybe even a teen, look out for some of these common symptoms that don’t necessarily grab your attention to say, “Oh wow, he must be depressed!”
- shutting down
- sex drive issues
- sleep difficulties
- increase in alcohol
WHAT'S AT THE ROOT
“Love and work... work and love, that's all there is,” said Sigmund Freud about life happiness. And I’ll add Self. The quality of the love and work in our lives is key, but I have found that a significant and foundational ingredient to happiness stems from the quality of our relationship to our self, and in my opinion, warrants its own place on the stage of life happiness. So let’s start there.
Connection To One’s Self
People with a strong sense of self know themselves well and what makes them happy, especially as life’s stages awaken us to grow and change. They can sense and express their painful, vulnerable feelings and when something is missing. They listen to what might align them with their purpose, not necessarily what society or others might dictate. A strong connection to one's self comes with an internal, unconditional value and self respect, regardless of outside influences; and feeling worthy of love and happiness. While clearly not perfect, they carry a self-accepting attitude about their humanness and can see their goodness.
A connection to one Self (capital S emphasized), can ultimately allow for us to connect to something bigger, higher—an endlessness if you will. Michael Berg, author and spiritual leader, recently shared something with me about the endlessness of our universe that I can’t stop thinking about. Whether you call it spirituality or science, we live in a miraculous world in an ever-expanding universe. Literally, EVER expanding, no end. We are of this universe and so thereby carry this ever-expanding capacity within us as well. Until we tap into this limitless endless aspect within our nature, within our lives, we can, in some way, expect the feelings of joy and the life force flowing through us to also come to an end.
Most of us have work to do to reach the ultimate self- and Self-connection, but for men, attention paid toward the journey of the internal is deemphasized and even discouraged, making it almost taboo to address personal issues and to open oneself to the spiritual search. (I hope this is changing for the millennial generations.) In sum, I have found depression more likely to show up when a man shows the following:
- Feelings of not good enough, unappreciated
- Significant losses without moving through the grief
- Lacking a connection to a bigger picture, a sense of purpose
- Unaware of themselves and the importance of ever-changing and growing
Relationship with Work
While women can nurture and provide, men tend to feel their sole/soul purpose is to provide. I’ve seen that for many men, when they are unfulfilled at work, it’s tough to shake off and say, “Oh well.” Here are some of the common work complaints that can trigger depression:
- I feel isolated at work; I don’t feel part of the team
- It’s tense and dry at work, we don’t laugh or have fun together
- I don’t feel that what I do has purpose or makes a difference.
- It’s futile — my ideas don’t come to fruition. I feel irrelevant.
- Work is my life, my whole identity.
Love and Marriage
Being in an unfulfilling relationship can be a great source of depression — especially when feeling trapped and hopeless about it. Also true, I’ve seen it the other way around where a depressed man, who doesn’t understand himself, can easily externalize his own lack and perceive his wife as the source of his unhappiness. Because of the human tendency to see the problem outside of ourselves, I recommend turning to oneself first to see where the lack might be, not that the marriage might also be a variable.
Overall, whether that be in your marriage or with your children, close friends or co-workers, parents or siblings— the deepening quality of the loving bonds we form nurtures our very essence. And when we are touched and awakened in this way, our desire for everything life has to offer ever-expands. As shared above, we live in a universe that is ever expanding, limitlessly, and so too is our capacity for love and unity with others.
While social connection is a great source of happiness, by contrast, loneliness is a major source of unhappiness. Study after study reiterates our basic need for love and intimacy, in small and great ways, not only for happiness, but also for health and longevity. An interesting longitudinal study Harvard conducted over the span of 79 years, recently published, deemed the quality of our relationships as the most significant variable in long-term health and happiness. They went on to say that this is why high conflict marriages affect health so negatively, even more so than divorce itself.
- Talk About It —whether that be with a counselor, your GP, or a men’s group; maybe a spiritual mentor, close friend or coworker. Open up to someone you trust can listen—depression cannot heal when it stays in the dark.
- Get to Know Your Self and What Needs to Change. Listen to what your depression is trying to tell you. Our depressed feelings can be a gateway to much-needed change. While acting on and placing too much emphasis on feelings can cause havoc, I do maintain that our feelings — including depressed — can serve as an important messenger and gateway to important changes we need to make. A counselor can help you find your own truth about what your depression might mean. While medication can be essential, when possible, the inside out emphasis I find is most effective, that is, exploring the invitation to grow and transform first and foremost.
- Medication Can Be Helpful — as a tool, not a solution. Getting to the root yields the best results but many need the support of medication to even get the change process underway. A good counselor can help you decide whether it’s time to try.
- Help Someone Else. The best medicine to help depression is to help someone else. There is a connection with one’s spiritual importance (different from self-importance) when we use whatever we have for the sake of giving love to another. Look for ways you can help others you don’t know and also close to home, awakening your purpose within your family and friendship circles.
- Seek Marriage Counseling. Explore how your marriage can be stronger and how you can feel more engaged and fulfilled. Bring up issues and invest in growing closer. The more we grow together as a couple, the more enlivening and new our relationships and life can feel.
- Check Your Work/Life Balance and the degree to which you over-identify with your work. In Anna Quindlen’s, A Short Guide to a Happy Life, she puts it simply, “You cannot be really first-rate at your work if your work is all you are.” Get a life she recommends, meaning be present, enjoy the smell of morning air, don’t go it alone, find people you love and who love you.
- Engage! With family, friends, community. Many men feel they work and aren’t a part of the family and home like they’d like to be. A 3rd wheel. Put yourself in it— and women/partners need to put effort into making men feel like the important part the family they truly are.
- Be Careful of Drugs and Alcohol. Research shows that depressed men are more likely to increased their alcohol and substance use (for some it's overeating) and this only makes depression worse.
- Make an action plan with a coach or counselor. In some cases, making a safety plan could also save your life.
- Find Ways to Tap into Endlessness — which could mean spiritual wisdom with new secrets, creativity, and new projects, giving and sharing that has continuity, constant change and growth, strengthening your bonds of love ever deeper. Having a connection to a sense of spirituality, to something that has endlessness, can make a significant difference in preventing an end to our own happiness and zest for life.