How Stubbornness Intensifies Depression in American Men
Handling depression is tough. Handling depression alone or without compromise is considerably harder.
Ryan’s father is the most stubborn man Ryan knows. Ryan, who asked not to be named in this article, describes him as a Sopranos character minus the ties to organized crime. He’s a son of Italian immigrants who’s lived in Jersey for all of his very loud, confrontation-filled life. For as long as Ryan can remember, his father has been repeating his mistakes and arguing even inarguable points.
“If we’re having a fight, no matter how silly he’s being or how dumb his position is, he’ll just hold onto it until it gets to a point where it’s emotionally not worth the energy to hold onto it anymore,” Ryan says. Then Ryan laughs. He loves his dad.
Still, the stubbornness represents a real problem because Ryan’s father suffers from depression and stubbornness and depression go together like like ammonia and bleach. They create a toxic cloud that fills Ryan’s family’s home for days on end.
We expect fathers to be stubborn. It’s a shopworn cliché regularly mined for easy humor. Lost husbands never ask for directions. Clark Griswold, Archie Bunker, and Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor never admit they’re wrong — they stay the course and blunder through disaster after disaster. But when male stubbornness is coupled with male depression, it’s no joke. Depression changes how a person perceives the world. Stubbornness makes you insist that perception is correction. Believing your possibilities are limited, you sink further into despair and stubbornly lash out at anyone who tries to convince you otherwise.
Because Western society’s attitudes about mental health are shaped by gender roles, male depression easily hides in plain sight. Our cultural norms teach us that sadness is weakness and therefore incompatible with masculinity. While about 12 percent of American men are likely to experience depression sometime in their lives, their symptoms could easily go unrecognized and untreated. A recent study indicated that our people are less likely to recognize symptoms of depression in men than in women.
After an injury left him unable to work around 2005, Ryan’s father withdrew into his house and got hooked on opioids. He became a shell of his former self, staying in bed all day and only leaving to visit the grocery store. He ignored his family’s pleas. No, he didn’t want to take a walk. No, he did not want to talk about it. He denied that there was a problem, even after a doctor diagnosed him with depression.
“I don’t know if he was resistant to the diagnosis, but, going back to the stubbornness, he’s just in denial,” Ryan said. “Like he’ll tell himself that he’s not depressed, he’s just feeling this way because his body hurts or like whatever.”
Unwilling to take steps to treat his depression, Ryan’s father pretends it’s under control until his emotions are too powerful to contain.
“It’s so bottled up that he immediately gets very emotional,” Ryan said. “So it’s like he has been pushing it down or ignoring it or maybe talking about it to himself in his head or whatever. And then if he ever brings it up to me within like two sentences, he gets teary-eyed and like almost can’t talk because it’s like he stifled it for so long that he can’t.”
Ryan’s father isn’t alone in denying his depression. There’s evidence that men respond to depression in much different ways than women. In fact, therapist and author Jed Diamond argues that depression manifests itself differently in men and women.
“Often we think of depression as somebody being just very, very sad, who can’t get past feelings of self-blame and has low energy and just can’t get through the day or, in extreme cases, is suicidal because they’re just so sad they don’t want to live,” Diamond says. “Men often have different symptoms that aren’t recognized, that include things like irritability and anger, frustration, acting out.”
Diamond says that men suffering with depression may behave very differently than the fatigued and despairing figure we think of as a depressed person. Diamond believes that instead of withdrawing inward, as women with depression often do, men turn their depression out to the world through hostility and impatience.
Diamond says culturally-dictated gender roles cause the difference between how men and women experience depression. Because men don’t think men should be sad, they ignore their depression or express it through hostility. “Men tend to hold in their feelings more,” Diamond said. “They’re often trained to express anger more easily than sadness, or fear, or anxiety or worry.”
When men stubbornly cling to a self-conception of masculinity that’s at odds with what they’re feeling, they’ll deny that their problem exists at all. Or if they do recognize they’re in pain, they insist on handling it alone.
“It’s probably fair to say that men who adhere to traditional ideas about manhood tend to be at least resolute, if not stubborn,” Will Courtenay, a leading psychologist in the field of masculinity, said. “So, for a guy like this who says, ‘I can get through this on my own, and I don’t need anybody else’s help!’ that could certainly influence him to not get needed treatment.”
But men who’ve come to terms with their depression and deal with it in healthy ways say that digging in your heels and going it alone can only make it worse. Bryant, a 37-year-old father of four from Georgia was diagnosed with clinical depression at 16. When he started exhibiting symptoms of depression in his early teens, his parents dismissed it as a phase that would pass. But the depression stuck. He likened the experience of depression to the dread and joylessness that comes after experiencing a trauma, only without a catalyzing event.
“For me, this dark cloud was as natural and normal as breathing,” Bryant said. “It was a state of being.”
His turning point came when a therapist finally convinced him that no matter how stubborn he was, his depression would wait him out.
“When I had been battling this for a few years and I had a therapist lean forward, look me dead in my eyes, and tell me, ‘You’re never going to be rid of this. You will be this way the rest of your life,’” Bryant said. “Now, that sounds harsh. And it was. I slumped in my chair and fixed my gaze on the floor. When he had paused long enough to let that sink in, he asked the classic psychological question, ‘How did that make you feel?” I told him it was the last thing I had wanted to hear.’”
While it was the last thing he wanted to hear in that moment, he’d later realize it was the thing he most needed to hear in his life. There wasn’t a magic pill. There wasn’t an easy fix. His depression would be with him forever. “I needed to accept it and learn to deal,” he said.
When Doug Mains’ first child was born, he didn’t feel the way he expected he would when he became a father. The East Lansing, Michigan resident didn’t feel anything at all.
“I had all these aspirations of what it means to be a dad and what kind of dad I want to be and then when it came to it I just hated life,” Mains said. “I was finally a dad and I was overwhelmed with my own issues.”
It was a wake-up call and part of what he called his “slow, unraveling realization” of his own depression. Raised in a religious background, mental disorders and depression wasn’t part of his vocabulary. When he started researching mental health as an adult, he read a book on anxiety underlined so much in the book that it defeated the purpose of underlining. It was a good first step, but he needed a push, which came courtesy of his wife.
While he was reluctant to start taking medication for his depression, Bryant credited his medication with completely saving his life. A 2017 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that while antidepressant is on the rise, women are prescribed antidepressants at twice the rate of men. The gender disparity is likely due to widespread male reluctance to seek treatment for their depression. In addition, a Swedish survey from the same year concluded that medical professionals might be over-prescribing antidepressants to women.
“My wife said one late night in a conversation ‘I feel like you’re in a spot where you might do something extreme,’” Mains said. “It wasn’t until she kind of cornered me with that, in the most loving way possible, that it convinced me to see a doctor about it.”
After he began to take medication, Mains saw that his perception of life was fundamentally flawed. “It’s like prescription eyewear,” Mains said. “You don’t see reality then you get prescription eyewear and you put your glasses on and you can see clear now.”
Mains blogs from the site Dadding Depressed, where he shares his journey as a dad living with depression and connects with other men facing the same challenges.
Courtenay believes that there are some common traits among stubborn men with depression that makes it particularly hard for them to address their mental disorder. Chief among these is a shared idea about manhood and weakness being at odds with each other.
Men who don’t want to face the shortcomings of the brain chemistry end up compounding the risks associated with depression. And those risks are very real. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, about seven percent of men with a lifetime history of depression die by suicide. In addition, depression is linked to a heightened risk of cardiovascular disease and a recent Canadian study found that men with depression are more likely to die early.
Bryant doesn’t believe fixing men’s stubbornness is easy, but stressed that the effort is worth it.
“The stigma surrounding mental health is the biggest hurdle to overcome,” he said. “And that’s my mission. Teach men that there is no shame in admitting you have a problem and getting help for it. In fact, it’s the bravest thing you can do for yourself and your family. And I submit, it’s the most manly thing to do. It’s broke. Go fix it.”
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