Public awareness and understanding about male depression varies greatly between countries and cultures. In certain parts of the world men are happy to speak openly about their feelings and their mental wellness. In these societies, mental health is out in the open — it can be spoken of shamelessly and publicly in the same way any other health issue could be talked about. Seeing a psychologist or a psychiatrist isn’t unusual or embarrassing in these cultures — in fact, it’s perfectly normal.
In other parts of the world, however, depression is still a taboo topic for men (and women too, for that matter). Depression is something that is known of, but spoken about only on the rarest of occasions– if ever. All too often these societies are still caught up in older beliefs, where depression was something too private or embarrassing for men to speak of in public.
And there are yet other places in the world where depression itself is remains relatively unknown, where one’s mental wellbeing is something that is not directly considered in and of itself. Here the problem is not just a taboo culture surrounding depression, but a genuine lack of understanding of what depression is and how it can be combatted.
One universal trait that seems to span all the various attitudes towards depression is that men are generally less informed and less willing to speak about depression. Even in modern, well educated societies, taboos about depression can linger on in the minds of men, making them slow to seek help even when they know they should. In less open societies, where real cultural taboos about depression are still prominent, men can be even more reluctant to speak out — or even inform themselves — about depression.
It should come as no surprise, then, that if you google ‘myths about depression in men’ you will find information about depression that ranges from what most people would consider the blindingly obvious to what even the most educated and informed person might find almost impossible to believe.
Myth #1: Depression in men is a product of ‘Western’ culture.
This is a myth that seems highly intuitive but is not backed up by the facts. Western men, it is said, are more likely to become depressed because they are over-exposed to unattainable male ideals in the media. Not every man is going to be tall, confident, wealthy, athletic and fashionable, yet more and more men are being exposed to people who appear to be all of those things– and more.
Similarly, it is also claimed that western males have lost contact with the daily hardships that are more common in poorer nations. Working hard in the countryside, living day-to-day in servitude or in a factory supposedly does away with the mental baggage that the stereotypically less overworked Western men build up. Paradoxically, these poorer men are freed from the silly ideals and pressures that men of the west are burdened by.
It’s not true. Men (and women too) become depressed at generally comparable rates across different countries and cultures, regardless of wealth or quality of life. What’s more, especially poor countries in parts of Africa and the Middle East suffer from rates of depression far higher than what is seen in western countries. Russia, another country where men are not yet as exposed to ‘western’ male values is also shown to have a very high rate of male depression. Rich or poor, a part of the West or not, depression is an illness that is impossible for men to avoid.
Myth #2: Depression in men (and women) is rare.
Most people reading this will have had their life affected by depression in one way or another. Either through a personal battle with depression, the experiences of a close family member or just the knowledge that a friend or colleague has fought depression, there are few people out there who have not had any contact with the illness. However, it will come as a surprise to many just how common depression really is. The World Health Organisation has claimed that up to 350 million people are affected by depression at any given time.
This is a huge number, far greater than many people assume. It is also important not to forget that, just as many thousands of people make progress with their depression on any given day, there are thousands more who begin to suffer from the illness. There is a constant cycle of new people becoming depressed, which again points to the fact that depression is a far more common problem than even the most informed person might realise.
Myth #3: Depression is more common in men than women.
Of those 350 million people who suffer from depression, it is tempting to assume that more men than women will be affected by depression. Men, after all, commit suicide at a considerably higher rate than women. It seems logical to assume that there must be more men out there suffering in silence, or that the kinds of pressure that societies place on men is more damaging to their mental health.
However (rather surprisingly) this is not the case. The aforementioned WHO depression factsheet points out that far more women suffer from depression than men. Moreover, while men are more likely to commit suicide, women are more likely to attempt suicide. The rather grim explanation for the heightened levels of ‘successful’ male suicide is attributed to the fact that men are more likely to choose a more lethal method of suicide than women.
Myth #4: Depression in men is a sign of mental weakness.
Somewhere between a myth, misinformation and a product of a taboo, an all too common problem with male sufferers of depression is the belief that their depression is caused by weakness of character. Across most cultures the attribute of strength, both physical and mental, is perhaps the quintessential masculine ideal that men strive to attain. Depression can produce a lack of confidence, lack of motivation, and even affect physical issues such as weight gain.
All of these symptoms of depression (and many more besides) contradict the ideal masculine qualities that most societies establish. The belief that depression is proof of weakness, of a lack of masculinity, prevents countless men from reaching out for help, or even from discussing their depression with their immediate family.
Of course, depression in either sex is no more a sign of weakness of character than catching the flu is. Depression can and does affect anyone, from the wealthiest playboy, to the comedian (it’s very common among comedians, actually) to the hard-working, small-town father of three. And yet this myth about weakness of character endures, even in educated, thoughtful societies.
Moving past myth…
These four myths are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the misunderstanding of male depression. In seeking solutions and treatments for depression, it is important to remember that each person comes with their own beliefs and misconceptions. Only through open discussion and proper education can societies learn to conquer these myths.